Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pope's Cuba Criticism is Quieter Than Many Had Hoped

Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up his visit to Cuba yesterday after presiding over a morning mass in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, followed by a meeting with former leader Fidel Castro. During their half-hour long encounter, the two men allegedly joked about their old age, and Fidel probed the pope about his day-to-day responsibilities.

Although hopes were high that Pope Benedict would openly condemn the Cuban government’s human rights failures during his visit to the island, His Holiness offered little in the way of direct criticism of the regime, instead adopting a more measured tone in his political remarks.  While he appealed to Cuba to loosen restrictions on religion and called for respect for “basic freedoms,” he did so in veiled language, taking care not to overtly attack the government. 

The New York Times characterizes this as “walk[ing] the tightrope that spans the old and new Cuba,” with Pope Benedict pushing for more reform while also portraying the Church as on the side of the Cuban people. Specifically, the pope urged the Castro government to allow the Church to establish its own schools and broadcast outlets, and called for Good Friday to be declared a national holiday, much like Christmas was made a holiday after the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998.

At the same time, the pope scored points with the government by denouncing the 50-year-old US economic embargo, saying it “unfairly burdens” the Cuban people. He also refused to meet with opposition activists during his visit, and made no mention of imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross despite the US State Department’s request that he do so.

Ultimately, this pope’s visit proved to be less groundbreaking than the historical visit of his predecessor, an event which is credited for inciting significant changes to laws on religious expression in Cuba.  Still, as the Havana Note points out, Benedict’s visit “was more about consolidating spaces the Cuban Catholic Church has won in society and about gaining more such space.” Those who had hopes that Pope Benedict would fully embrace the opposition movement on the island may have been asking too much of him.

News Briefs

·         El Universal reports that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has returned home after a five-day-long radiation therapy session in Cuba, which he says went well. He will again travel to Havana on Saturday for another round of treatment, and will apparently need three more rounds after that. In an interview with Voice of America, Inter-American Dialogue President Michael Shifter argues that Chavez will be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming election in October, despite his illness. Meanwhile, a public opinion survey conducted by Consultores 21pits opposition candidate Henrique Capriles against potential replacements for Chavez. According to the poll, if Chavez’s health should fail to the point where his party is forced to choose another candidate, the presidency would almost certainly go to the opposition.

·         Ex-Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has announced that his throat cancer is in “complete remission,” and he now intends to return to politics. In a video posted to his foundation’s website yesterday, Lula said he wants to take up politics again because “Brazil needs to continue to grow, develop, generate jobs, improve the lives of millions and millions of Brazilians who managed to enter the middle class... as well as those who dream of joining the middle class."

·         El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes yesterday denied reports that his government had negotiated the apparent peace agreement between rival street gangs MS-13 and M-18, saying the truce had been brokered by the Church and civil society groups. However, El Diario de Hoy notes that Funes confirmed rumors that the government transferred 30 imprisoned gang leaders to lower-security facilities around the same time that news of the agreement surfaced, which casts doubt on his story.

·         Although the next general election is more than two years away, La Razon reports that Bolivian President Evo Morales’ ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party has officially endorsed him as their candidate in the December 2014 elections. AP points out that his eligibility for re-election is contested, as it is unclear whether the term limits set forth in the country’s new constitution apply to his term in office prior to the 2009 constitutional referendum.

·         The Mexican senate has approved a constitutional amendment which allows people to celebrate religious events in public, according to El Universal. AP notes that restrictions on religious observance in public have roots in strict anti-clerical laws which drove Catholics to rebel against the government in the late 1920s.

·         Non-involved parties will not be permitted to take part in the hostage turnover slated by Colombia’s FARC rebels for next week, reports El Colombiano. Although Colombianas y Colombianos por la Paz (an NGO which has helped negotiate the release) had wanted to invite international delegates such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin rejected this, saying the incident shouldn’t be made into a “media circus.”

·         The Associated Press reports on the brutal murder of a gay man in Chile, allegedly committed by a neo-Nazi gang. The case has prompted President Sebastian Pinera to press the lower house of congress to pass an anti-discrimination law, which evangelical groups see as a step towards accepting gay marriage.

·         After serving in office for less than a year, Puerto Rican police chief Emilio Diaz Colon has stepped down, according to the AP. InSight Crime notes that the territory has seen a major spike in homicides and drug trafficking in recent years, and its police force has been dogged by rampant corruption.

·         An investigation into the crimes committed during Argentina’s “Dirty War” has revealed an entire warehouse filled with rusty Ford Falcon cars, a model which was rumored to be favored by government death squads. The warehouse belonged to the Argentine navy, and raises questions of an attempted cover-up. Reuters claims they will be searched for traces of blood and hair.

·         The BBC profiles Argentina’s “dissenters,” the minority who believe that their government’s claims to the Falkland Islands are invalid. Because of the politically charged nature of the issue, these individuals are often intimidated into silence.

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