World News

In his old parish, Argentines hope Pope Francis can help solve debt crisis

By Marina Lammertyn

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – In the Buenos Aires neighborhood where Pope Francis grew up, Argentines quietly hope the pontiff can help solve a debt crisis that has rippled through every part of Argentine society and put the serial defaulter at risk in the markets.

Argentina’s new Economy Minister Martin Guzman will meet with International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva on the sidelines of a Vatican event on Wednesday, a key meeting with the country racing to restructure $100 billion in debt.

The symbolism of the Vatican meeting, facilitated by an Argentine pope who has been outspoken about economic fairness, is not lost on the streets of the predominantly Roman Catholic country’s capital, where many are grappling with recession, high inflation and capital controls.

“It seems to me that the pope is playing an important role as a mediator to unlock the financial situation of our country,” said Mercedes Fariña, an artist in the district of Flores best known for her paintings of the pope.

Farina reminisced about receiving a hand-written letter from Francis, who she had heard say Sunday mass when he was a parish priest.

“I think he has this country in his heart so I think he will support this government,” she added. “Hopefully it helps.”

Argentina’s new center-left President Alberto Fernandez, who met the pope last week, needs all the help he can get. The country cannot currently pay its debts and has an ambitious aim to restructure payments by the end of March.

Winning over the IMF, which extended a $57 billion facility to the country in 2018, is key. Both sides have heralded positive talks so far, with Fernandez’s Peronist government hoping it can strike a good faith agreement with the fund.

That is no easy matter for a country that has defaulted twice since the turn of the century, most recently in 2014, straining its relationship with international creditors.

Father Gabriel Marronetti, a priest at the pope’s old Basilica San José de Flores church, said the pontiff’s involvement would help lend a higher moral authority to any agreement.

“I believe Pope Francis adds confidence to something by his word,” Marronetti, a disciple who recently visited the pope at the Vatican, told Reuters at the Buenos Aires church.

“When he is involved in something, he will do everything possible to make sure whatever is said is fulfilled.”

In the neighborhood of old buildings and squares full of people selling handicrafts, residents had some mixed feelings about Pope Francis, who has not visited the country since being ordained. But all hoped his focus on poverty would help.

“The pope’s support with his gaze towards the poor is always valuable,” said Patricia Zanollo, a 61-year-old orthodontist as she left the church where Francis found his vocation. “It’s a positive and it gives me hope.”

On streets near the house with a marble plaque marking the birthplace of Jorge Bergoglio, as Francis was named, psychoanalyst Andrea Muiño praised his focus on “social justice” – a term often used by Fernandez who took office in December.

In the Flores district museum, which displays photos and recollections of the pope as a young man, museum official Juan Braña said he hoped the pontiff could help different sides strike an agreement.

“I believe Francisco is historically a peacemaker. He always tries to unite different parties,” Braña said.

Francesca Ambrogetti, a journalist and biographer of Bergoglio who lives in Buenos Aires, said the debt talks could even be a chance for the pope to bolster his standing among Argentines.

“I hope that Argentine society takes these meetings as something positive,” she said.

(Reporting by Marina Lammertyn; Additional reporting by Horacio Soria; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Tom Brown)