Thursday, July 9, 2015

Pope Briefs: Francis drinks the tea and praises Bolivia's social reforms (July 9, 2015)

  • Praise for Bolivian social reform:
Pope Francis will celebrate his first Bolivian Mass today and will meet with workers' cooperatives and other grass-roots groups representing the poor, reports the Associated Press. 
The pontiff praised Bolivia's social reforms to spread wealth under leftist President Evo Morales and urged the world not to view prosperity as material wealth, which he warned only breeds corruption and conflict. 
"Prosperity understood only in terms of material wealth has a tendency to become selfish ... to be unconcerned about others and to give free rein to consumerism," said Pope Francis yesterday. "Understood this way, prosperity, instead of helping, breeds conflict."
  • Papal relations with Evo Morales:
The first Latin American pope has thawed relations with Bolivian President Evo Morales, who seven years ago denounced the Church as "an instrument of domination," reports the New York Times. A constitutional reform carried out after Morales' took office in 2006 made Bolivia a secular country, and Morales removed the Bible and cross from the presidential palace and replaced Catholic rites with Andean religious rituals at official state ceremonies.
But Morales embraced the Pope yesterday, and said "he who betrays a poor person, betrays Pope Francis," reports the AP.
  • To chew or not to chew:
The pontiff, who is 78 and lost part of a lung to an infection in his youth, drank a tea made from of a mix of coca leaves, chamomile and anise seeds to ward off altitude sickness. Coca leaves are the base product for cocaine, but are used in local tradition for religious and health purposes.
But breathless observers wonder whether he will take the next step and actually chew the leaves, as locals do, reports the Los Angeles Times.
A Bolivian minister said 10 days ago that Francis had told government officials that he would like to chew coca leaves when he visits. A Vatican spokesman said, however, that the Argentine pontiff would decide for himself, reports Reuters.
It might seem like much ado about nothing, but the pontiff's tea sipping gives publicity to the case for traditional uses of coca leaves, an issue that is dear to President Evo Morales, , who used to be a coca grower, has long campaigned to decriminalize the consumption of coca leaves.
Though the leaves are considered an illegal substance internationally, their cultivation for medicinal and religious purposes is legal in Bolivia. Bolivia temporarily left the U.N. drug convention and re-acceded with a reservation on the chewing of coca leaf.
It's worth noting that Francis is not the first pope to drink coca tea: pope John Paul II drank tea made from coca leaves during his 1988 visit to Bolivia, and pope Paul VI drank the special tea during a visit to the Andes in 1968, reports The Guardian.
  • The Virgin and the Pachamama:
Wall Street Journal piece looks at the syncretic Catholicism in Bolivia, where indigenous communities fuse native practices with Catholic teachings and customs. For example in Bolivia many worship the Virgin Mary alongside Pachamama, or Mother Earth. And in Paraguay the pontiff will make a pilgrimage to a shrine that honors the nation's patroness, Our Lady of Caacupé, who reportedly first appeared in a vision to a converted Guaraní Indian peasant.

Like everywhere else in the region, the number of people who identify as Catholics is falling: A 2013 Latinobarometro poll says the number of Bolivians who identify themselves as Catholics has fallen by seven percentage points since the mid-90s, as Evangelicals rose from single digits to as much as 17% of the population.
  • Politically charged gifts:
Morales gave Pope Frances a copy of "The Book of the Sea," which is about the loss of Bolivia's access to the sea during the War of the Pacific with Chile in 1879-83. Bolivia took its bid to renegotiate access to the Pacific to the International Court of Justice in 2013, while Chile has argued the court has no jurisdiction because Bolivia's borders were defined by a 1904 treaty. The court is expected to rule by the end of the year if it has competence to decide the case, reports AP.
Rumors are swirling that Bolivia will ask the pontiff to intervene in the matter. Earlier this year in a Nueva Sociedad piece examining the Bolivia-Chile conflict over oceanic access, Sergio Molina Monasterios says the Pope's visit to Bolivia this year might impact the apparently intractable problem. Bolivia hasn't officially asked Pope Francis to mediate, but Molina says such an intervention would be Chile's worst nightmare, as Chilean diplomats continue to believe they got the worst end of the stick in 1978 when Pope John Paul II intervened to stop an imminent war with Argentina.
  • Respite for Correa
The papal visit to Ecuador gave President Rafael Correa a breather from ongoing protests against his government and an attempted increase in inheritance taxes. But the pope had not even left Ecuadorean airspace, however, when the opposition announced it would resume the demonstrations, reports the Los Angeles Times.

News Briefs
  • Using the military to fight drug gangs in Honduras may have been nominally successful in stemming violence in the country, but has instead brought a litany of murder, rape and torture accusations by some victims and human rights groups against the armed forces, reportsReuters. Between 2012 and 2014, Honduran soldiers were accused of being involved in at least nine murders, over 20 cases of torture and about 30 illegal detentions, according to data compiled by Reuters. "The number of human rights violations by the military is rising, and the threat is greater and growing because military police operate with their faces covered and without visible identification, which fans impunity," said Juan Almendarez, director of CPTRT, a center for the treatment of torture victims and their relatives. The militarization program began under former President Porfirio Lobo, amid an uptick in violence after a 2009 coup, and was deepened by current president Juan Orlando Hernández. Since taking office in early 2014, Hernandez, a military-trained politician, has deployed a new military police force known as the PMOP that is set to grow by 40 percent this year. Hernandez has also increased the defense budget by a fifth. According to the respected National Autonomous University of Honduras' Observatory of Violence program, the 2014 murder rate fell to 68, down from 79 in 2013. 
  • El Salvador might benefit from international help in combatting organized crime and corruption suggested U.S. State Department Councilor Thomas Shannon in a chat with the press while in Tegucigalpa. The model Shannon is referring to is the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The U.N. backed body has uncovered several high profile cases of corruption, which have rocked President Otto Pérez Molina's administration (see June 30th's post). The idea of such international support has been floating around since 2010, reports La Prensa Gráfica, when then-president Mauricio Funes brought it up in his U.N. general assembly speech, but the proposal failed to take off. Shannon's dialogue with the press is the first time the State Department makes reference to such a possibility in El Salvador. El Salvador has an average of 22 homicides a day, reports La Prensa, with nearly 95 percent impunity for murders, according to the paper's calculations. Shannon also mentioned Honduras as a possible recipient of international assistance against impunity, a possibility that was floated earlier this year by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Last week the  U.N. and OAS announced they will assist the government of Honduras in the implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, in order to reinforce the national dialogue (see June 30th's post).
  • Nicaraguan police beat and detained government opponents at a protest demanding fair election rules and a change of electoral magistrates ahead of the 2016 presidential election, reports the AP. Police initially tried to block demonstrators -- who have been protesting weekly in Managua -- from reaching the electoral council offices, but they grabbed a police barricade and tried to use it to force their way past a police line. Officers also harassed journalists on the scene. Police also detained but later released nine lawmakers from the opposition Independent Liberal Party. Government opponents contend the ruling Sandinista party has skewed electoral rules and oversight in its own favor.
  • Rumors are swirling that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff won't finish her second term -- for which she was elected only nine months ago -- reports Reuters. However, there is no proof of her involvement in corruption, which would be needed for an impeachment proceeding and the president continues to deny the rumors which are aimed at toppling her government, she said in an interview with Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. With these stories it's worth revisiting a piece in NACLA that urges skepticism of press narratives in Brazil (and can be extrapolated to the region). "The Brazilian and foreign press are engaged in an endless echo chamber of self-validation: foreign journalists get their information from anti-government media outlets, which then breathlessly report the foreign “analysis” in order to validate their own bias writes Bryan Pitts.
  • All of Colombia's internet traffic is monitored by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, according to a hacked email circulated on Twitter on Monday night. The e-mail signals widespread American surveillance of electronic communications in the country considered the longtime central battlefield in the global war on drugs, reports VICE. The hacked email — dated June 9, 2015, with the subject line "Brief DEA meeting in Colombia" — mentions the Hacking Team product Remote Control System, or Galileo, which allows clients to access smartphones and turn on a device's microphone and recorder remotely. The email suggests the DEA already has Galileo in use at the US embassy in Bogota. Hacking Team has reportedly told all its clients, including top US law-enforcement agencies, to stop using its products in response to Sunday's hack. 
  • The same Hacking Team hack has shown that Mexico is by far its biggest paying client, reportsVICE.The country has paid more than $6.3 million to help it spy on its targets, topping the nearest state client Italy by $1.9 million. At least 14 Mexican states and government agencies have hired the company's services since 2010, with Mexico's interior ministry being the most recurrent client. The government got discounts of hundreds of thousands of pesos to renew the surveillance programs, along with special software permitting them to attack multiple objectives and hack networks and e-mails such as Facebook, Twitter and Gmail, reports Animal Político.
  • An investigation by Animal Político and Nexos found that between 2009 and 2015 two corporations, Enova and Proacceso, have obtained at least 700 million pesos from public coffers, and used the funds to build a chain of 70 computer schools, which charge fees for services, despite being publicly funded.
  • Earlier this week David Smilde wrote about the issue of international observation of Venezuela's December parliamentary elections. It is unclear to what extent international organizations will be permitted access to the polling process he reported (see Tuesday's briefs). But over at Al Jazeera, Mike Weisbrot questiones the demand for OAS and EU observers, which he says will be part of the right-wing strategy to de-legitimize the upcoming National Assembly elections in December. "the OAS has a very mixed track record. In 2000, for example, the OAS reversed its original approval of Haitian parliamentary elections after Washington decided it didn’t like the results. In 2011, also in Haiti, an OAS commission stacked with pro-Washington members took the astounding and unprecedented step of actually reversing the result — not recommending a new election or a recount, as is sometimes done with disputed elections — of a first-round presidential election. These and other interventions by the OAS raise questions about whether an impartial delegation from the OAS could be established, given Washington’s strong influence over the OAS bureaucracy." The piece notes that the U.S. was the last government in the world to recognize the result of the 2013 elections and only did so and only under pressure from the rest of the region, including Brazil.

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