Can Pope Francis Save Brazil?
If God is Brazilian, as Brazilians like to say, it didn’t look like it this week.
In the early days of his seven-day sojourn to the world's largest Catholic nation, Pope Francis got quite the taste of issues currently angering locals. Despite much preparation for the pontiff’s arrival for World Youth Day 2013 -- the Catholic version of Woodstock -- his motorcade was briefly trapped in traffic. Protests against the $53 million spent to prepare for his visit ended in violence. And scores of the Pope’s followers were stranded in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday after a power outage paralyzed subway lines.
Catholic pilgrims spent at least five hours waiting to pick up their "pilgrim kits" -- which included a backpack, T-shirt, an agenda and Catholic literature -- at Brazil’s famous Sambadrome. One attendee, Argentina’s Nair Jaime, tweeted with stoic patience: “The pilgrim kit for our delegation is delayed :) The ladies from our parish are making lunch for us :) We're waiting.”
Such logistical hiccups certainly put pressure on the country’s politicians. Elio Gaspari said it best in his O Globo newspaper column yesterday: “When Pope Francis arrived in Rio, the country experienced a neurasthenic atmosphere in which a pilgrimage of faith was easily confused with a military operation that was a cathedral of ineptitude.”
Indeed, some in Brazil hope that the first Latin American pope can help solve their economic and political problems. Marina Quiuqui, from Sao Paulo, tweeted yesterday: “I hope the Pope cites at mass the problems of Brazil, in some way the shame of politics."
Perhaps the closest the Pope has gotten to policy (aside from denunciations of drug lords and drug legalization) is -- fitting with the occasion -- in his concern over global youth joblessness. During his flight to Brazil on Monday, Francis told reporters that due to youth unemployment, “We risk having a generation that has never worked, and yet it is through work that a person acquires dignity by earning bread. The young, at this moment, are in crisis.” Later that day, accompanied by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at a welcome ceremony, Francis talked of giving youth “a solid basis on which to build their lives” and turning them into “builders of their own destiny.”
Today, he ventured into the Varghina favela, one of the toughest slums of Rio and made some of his fiercest remarks: “Here, as in the whole of Brazil, there are many young people.... You have a particular sensitivity towards injustice, but you are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good.”
In a continent divided between those who believe unsustainable populist handouts or private-sector-led growth is the way forward, the Pope’s carefully chosen words haven't quite taken sides. That's a shame. The Catholic Church is no stranger to taking a political position at key moments in history. John Paul II became instrumental in a fight against communism in Eastern Europe, especially in his native Poland. Pope Francis could preach sustainable economics in Latin America.
Rousseff, on the other hand, wasted no time during the welcoming ceremony proselytizing the work of her government in a nation where the state has a heavy hand: “Brazil has achieved extraordinary results during the last 10 years in poverty reduction, overcoming misery and in the guarantee of food security for our population.” She suggested joining hands with the Vatican on projects to reduce poverty. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi gently distanced the institution from the suggestion, quoted yesterday in newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo saying, “There are no agreements in that regard.”
Estado’s editorial yesterday took issue with Rousseff’s opening speech being longer than the Pope’s during the welcoming ceremony and noted, “The Pope's serene words further highlighted Dilma’s electioneering speech.” It explained that despite her talk of helping the poor, Rousseff's government may be increasing dependency. Rousseff’s temporary welfare programs, Estadao said, “have become permanent due to the government’s inability to create conditions so beneficiaries can move beyond handouts.” A religious leader worried about the poor would do well to support that argument.
Others wonder what this week’s logistical troubles will mean for a country set to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. As an O Globo editorial today made clear: "The mistakes made following the arrival of the Pope, the failure of the subway, and problems with the Confederations Cup reinforce suspicions regarding the ability of the country to be a good host."
Addressing the plight of the poor and improving Brazil’s outlook may require more than prayer. Both Rousseff and Francis would probably agree on that.
(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter.)
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