We have been treated to a genuine surprise with the election of Argentinian Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio to the vacant papal seat left by the resignation of his predecessor, the now Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Few would have guessed that Bergoglio was going to steal the limelight in what appeared to be, for those in the know, more of a contest between cardinals from other parts of the world. Even from the Latin American perspective, the faithful had their hopes pinned mostly on the archbishop of Sao Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, as the Brazilian press so clearly pointed out repeatedly before the conclave.
The new pope has his baggage; there's no question about that. Nevertheless, and taking the risk of upsetting many of my liberal and progressive colleagues and friends, before the election took place I could not think of a better option for the papacy than him. I did play the interactive "Choose your own Pope" pontificator published by the Guardian, and bar Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who incidentally has been at the centre of a child abuse scandal in his own diocese accused of covering up, no other cardinal seemed more progressive, or to put it better, less conservative, than Bergoglio.
Now, let's face facts. We cannot expect any of these princes of the Church - as cardinals are often called - to jump out of their traditional wagon of anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-contraception principles. After all, every single one of them got to where they are thanks to the previous two popes, both holders of solid conservative pedigrees.
Having said that, Pope Francis already has given many of us a glimmer of hope that even within his moderate conservatism, he is different from his two predecessors. As a matter of fact, old Catholics are already comparing him to the jolly John XXIII, the last real reformer of the Catholic Church, and responsible for the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Pope Francis is full of charisma and we certainly cannot blame him for failing to smile. His myth is in itself full of interesting facts; from the wacky story of the girl who refused to marry him when they were 12, to the misunderstandings he has created by suddenly wondering towards the crowds or by making direct phone calls that resulted in people thinking he was carrying out a prank. Of course, anyone who has had the opportunity to live in a country that produced the likes of Jorge Porcel, Alberto Olmedo and Les Luthiers would find it hard not to develop a fine sense of humour.
And it is this Argentinian, Latin American origin what makes the new pope truly different and what make many of us wonder what will be his impact on Latin America? Will he become an icon like Ernesto Guevara, Diego Armando Maradona, or Lionel Messi? Or will his past overrule his present and his future, limiting the scope of his contribution to the region?
Skeletons in the holy closet
The past of Pope Francis, with reason or not, cannot be separated from the brutal dictatorship established after the military coup of 1976 in Argentina that ousted Isabel Peron from power. This was not your run-of-the-mill dictatorship, no. This was a ferocious one, best remembered by the more than 30,000 people who were killed or disappeared during General Jorge Rafael Videla's rule and that of his successors.
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When all this happened Pope Francis was there, then the Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. Not surprisingly, and neither for first time Pope Francis has found himself facing accusations of collaboration with the military junta, and of failing to protect, and in some cases of denouncing his own priests.
In all truth, none of these accusations was ever proven. Nonetheless, his association with the governments of Videla and his successors, his enmity towards the Liberation Theology movement, and the manifest fact that he failed to denounce in unequivocal terms the crimes that were happening under his own eyes, do not exonerate him from responsibility altogether. I'm afraid that the jury will stay out on this one.
A horizon of hope for Latin America?
From a purely pragmatic point of view, though, it is not the past what matters but the present and the future. Today, Latin America is one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the world. A political tussle between some radical governments considered by many to be left-wing, and other conservative ones heavily inspired by the classic neoliberal economic model first implemented in the area by Pinochet and the Chicago Boys, have turned the continent into a battlefield for political ideas and ideologies.
From the forthcoming presidential elections in Venezuela, to the conflict of the Falklands, not forgetting some more mundane popular events like the also forthcoming Football World Cup and Olympic Games in Brazil, Latin America seems to be permanently in the news.
A Latin American pope is nothing but a new addition to this already colourful mosaic. Latin America has the largest number of Catholics in the world and they, and the rest of their non-Catholic neighbours, need the new pope to speak out for them.
It is not enough to encourage people to take care of each other, to walk together, or to protect the environment, as Pope Francis has argued in his first mass as the leader of his Church. It is actions - not words - that are desperately needed in the world we live in. As Pope Francis set his sights upon the continent where he was born, poverty and inequality continue to be a core problem in almost every country in the region, and that in spite of huge improvements over the past few years.
Equally, threats to the environment are on the rise, from the badly-advised decision of exploiting the Yasuni oil reserves in the middle of the Amazon forest in Ecuador, or the open air mining project of Minas Conga in Peru, to the construction of the giant and potentially destructive Belo Monte Dam in Brazil, the vast natural reserves and lush forests of the continent, and their inhabitants' lives are under threat, and I must add here, not always from predatory and opportunistic capitalist multinational corporations, but from some of the most "progressive" governments of the region as well.
Obviously Pope Francis won't be able to satisfy everybody's needs, but that doesn't mean that we cannot work together to leave a richer and happier place to live to our children, where poverty is not automatically equated to failure, and where compassion actually means something. Pope Francis has more than a smile and encouraging words to help this cause; we can only hope he will deliver.
Dr Manuel Barcia is Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.
You can follow Manuel on Twitter @mbarcia24
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.