Monday, July 29, 2013

The Local and Regional Impact of Pope Francis’ Brazil Visit

In addition to serving as a boost to the waning influence of the Catholic Church in Latin America, some analysts expected Pope Francis’ visit to Brazil last week to demonstrate the pontiff’s clout as a regional political player. While they were right on the first count, on the second the record is fairly mixed.

The Pope’s visit for World Youth Day culminated on Sunday in a mass held on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach, which the city government estimates was attended by some 3 million people. Today’s New York Times reports that the weeklong stay was seen by many as a herald of a new Church strategy to revitalize itself in Latin America, where the faith has lost ground to Evangelical Christianity in recent years.  Prior to the mass, he held a meeting with the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM) in which he urged regional clergy to attend to the existential needs of their congregants and not “act like princes.”

Before the visit, some analysts expected Pope Francis to weigh in on regional politics and the Brazilian government’s response to recent protests there, potentially adding tension to the political climate. As the Wall Street Journal put it:

“While his chief mission is to revitalize the Catholic Church, the world's first Latin American pope is shaping up as a player in Latin American politics as well…Pope Francis' trip presents both an opportunity and a risk for [President Dilma] Rousseff. Association with the pope could help her popularity. But she could be damaged if Pope Francis makes critiques that hit close to home.”
However, the pope’s presence proved not to be a major issue for Rousseff, who appeared in public with him upon his arrival and praised him for his efforts to reduce inequality, which she characterized as their “common enemy.”  Some of Pope Francis’ most politically charged remarks came on Thursday, when he urged young people to fight against corruption, one of the main grievances in last month’s demonstrations. “To you and to all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement,” Francis said, according to the AP. “Do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished. Situations can change, people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good, do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it.”

While his remarks touched on the protests, his message was vague enough to fall short of being a direct endorsement of them, even as he called for constructive dialogue on Saturday. In an interview published today in O Globo, the pontiff admitted to the paper that he was “not sure why the youths are protesting,” although he added that he supported the “essentially nonconformist” mindset of young people around the world, which he said was “based on an illusion of utopia.”

Perhaps his most overtly critical statement in terms of Brazilian politics came on Thursday, in the form of his challenge of the police strategy of “pacification” in urban areas around the country. Even then, however, his words fit with the social justice discourse of Rousseff and her Workers’ Party, as he noted that “no pacification effort will bring lasting peace, harmony, and happiness for a society that ignores and leaves its people on the periphery of itself.”

On a regional scale, his criticism of drug liberalization is sure to complicate the efforts of drug policy reform advocates throughout the hemisphere, although it did not exactly come as a surprise. As Brazilian journalist Igor Gielow noted in Folha de Sao Paulo last week, a hardline approach to drugs is a hallmark of Catholic doctrine, and falls in line with the pope’s generally conservative attitudes towards scripture, despite his populist image. Furthermore, as some have pointed out, the pope focused his remarks on the “liberalization of drug use,” mistakenly lumping drug decriminalization, legalization and regulation into the same boat.

News Briefs

  • On Saturday, a major demonstration against the administration of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala was held in Lima, drawing some 3,000 protesters, according to EFELa Republica has images of the protests, which coincided with the country’s Independence Day as well as the second anniversary since Humala’s election. LaRed21 reports that the demonstrations were organized by trade unions, students, and human rights groups, and appeared to be sparked by the recent highly-politicized election of representatives to the Tribunal Court and Ombudsman’s Office. The AP reports that police say 15 individuals were arrested in the protests, and Reuters claims they were “thought to be among the largest in Lima in a century.”
  • In a speech to Congress following Saturday’s demonstration, the Wall Street Journal reports that President Humala reiterated support for policies aimed at attracting foreign investment, even as economic growth starts to slow, and his approval rating has fallen to its lowest point ever since taking office.
  • The Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office announced on Saturday that officials had requested the freeze of the assets of Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the popular privately-owned El Nacional newspaper. While the AP notes that Otero called the incident “an outrage to limit freedom of expression,” the WSJ reports that the request was the result of charges filed by Alfredo Peña, a former Chavista mayor of Caracas who broke with the government and fled to the U.S. in 2004. Peña accuses Otero of failing to pay back a personal loan of some $3.5 million.
  • Saturday’s Washington Post featured a profile of the two main presidential candidates in Chile: former President Michelle Bachelet and former Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei, who have known each other since childhood. Their fathers were both air force generals, although each had opposite relationships with the Pinochet regimes. The paper offers an account of their respective stories, as well as an overview of the race, which political analyst Esteban Valenzuela frames as “an historic dispute between the daughters of a victim of the dictatorship and an active member of the military junta.”
  • One hundred days have passed since Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro took office following a narrow electoral win earlier this year. Maduro marked the occasion in a ceremony honoring the birthday of Hugo Chavez on Sunday, in which he described the months following the elections as a difficult, but “heroic” battle. BBC Mundo has an overview of Maduro’s administration so far, noting that while his claims to legitimacy have been threatened and he lacks Chavez’s charisma, he has demonstrated a more pragmatic approach to economic policy than his predecessor.
  • In the L.A. Times, Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul report on attitudes towards Edward Snowden in Venezuela, where some believe that his presence would be a distraction from more pressing issues in the country, and potentially involve them in a needless international dispute.
  • As the Colombian government and FARC rebels resume the latest session of dialogues in Havana, Cuba, the head government negotiator Humberto de la Calle  told reporters that the guerrillas “will be held to account for everything that has happened during the conflict,” the BBC reports. According to El Colombiano, De la Calle also warned against political posturing by the rebels, saying “this is not a process for the FARC to do politics, but to bring about the end of the conflict.” The remarks come as the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has had to defend its approval of a law that allows for selective prosecution of human rights abuses committed by armed groups, which some believe was a necessary condition for the current talks to begin.
  • On Saturday, NPR’s All Things Considered profiled the lower incidence of cocaine use in the United States, which according to national surveys has fallen from 1 percent in 2006 to .5 percent in 2011. In addition to reduced demand for the drug in the U.S., Daniel Mejia of the Research Center on Drugs and Security at Bogota’s Universidad de los Andes told NPR that much of this has to do with a shift in strategy which Juan Manuel Santos put in place when he was Defense Minister under President Alvaro Uribe. According to Mejia, Santos “emphasized drug seizures and targeting the labs and processing facilities that turned coca leaves into cocaine” instead of crop eradication, which caused a massive supply shock in the U.S. 

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