There are only a handful of days ahead before the puff of white smoke will announce to the world that the College of Cardinals gathering in the Sistine Chapel have elected a new Pope, and chances are that with the traditional Habemus Papam ("We have a Pope"), a Latin American may be announced. This may not come as a surprise to the world as Latinos are the second largest regional grouping after Europeans in the Vatican conclave, and close to half of the world's Roman Catholics live in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Among the Latin American cardinals whose names have been mentioned as strong candidates, poverty and development appears to be a major concern of them all, which means that the election of a Latino to the highest ranking position in the Catholic Church may lead to the prioritization of the issue, particularly in the Latin American region where poverty continues to be a major challenge for national governments and international development institutions.
According to the World Bank, in countries like Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Peru, at least 70 percent of their rural populations live in poverty which disproportionately afflicts the elderly, women and children. Some of the causes include: lack of access to critical services such as water and sanitation and limited economic growth in sectors like agriculture that accounts for a large share of the labor market. In some regional countries rural poverty has high social costs, such as in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and some parts of Mexico, often leading to trafficking of illicit drugs, human rights violations and social injustice.
There is already growing commitment in the world to deal with poverty. The international community at the September 2000 United Nations General Assembly agreed on the goal of reducing the proportion of hungry and extremely poor people by half (from 1990 levels) by 2015. At the UN Millennium Summit member nations adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals, which set specific targets in the fight against inequalities in income distribution, health care, education and gender, and in favor of a sustainable and environmentally friendly growth model.
We have also improved our understanding of factors that help to appropriately deal and reduce the poor-rich gap. There is widespread agreement that although economic growth and democracy are fundamental ingredients in the fight against such a malady, governments must carry out policies that ensure access to education for every one; provide effective and uncorrupt social assistance to improve public health and well being; and design and sustain institutions that are responsive to the needs of the poor. Successful anti-poverty strategies are, therefore, multidimensional and multisectoral and must be delivered with statesmanship and creativity: Poverty eradication is not a one-off venture but a long-term task that requires societal participation in the search for alternatives, as well as enduring institutions and long-lasting commitment from society as a whole.
A leader's preferences, decision-making and perceptions of the surrounding world are deeply affected by his/her origin or birth place, and this becomes vividly demonstrated in the concern shown by Pope John Paul II for social and political conditions in his Poland and Eastern Europe. The election of a Polish Pope not only interrupted the tradition of the Italian selection, but opened new avenues of work to the Papacy and the Vatican, and paved the way to the transformation of Eastern Europe.
Although John Paul II was a transcendental figure in the battle against totalitarianism in the world, more than an anti-communist he was a humanitarian as he was staunchly opposed to all exploitation of man by man including the inequities and injustices of savage capitalism. It is upon this humane tradition that Catholics and the Vatican will have to build for a better future.
In electing a successor to John Paul II, The Cardinals Conclave is called to transcend his spirited and innovative legacy to heal past wounds and build better bridges for the future. The election of a Latin American Pope will bring new light and energy to such a humanitarian cause, notably because of his in-depth knowledge of the challenges of poverty and lack of opportunities, rampant corruption, illiteracy, malnutrition, and inequality. With a Latino Pope the Vatican political and spiritual capital will join national and international players as well as millions of Latin American Roman Catholics engaged in the fight for a more humane region and world.
Jose Antonio Alvarado:
Jose Antonio Alvarado is the CEO of FISE an official Government Agency in Nicaragua that fosters and funds economic and social development in the country.