Sunday, June 26, 2005

Religion, Politics, and Football

While the football (soccer) national teams of Mexico and Argentina were playing a delightful semifinal of the Confederations Cup at Hanover, Germany, the newspapers of both countries were reporting, among many other things, of a couple of messages released by the Catholic bishops of both countries.

Both messages deal with politics in their countries and, more important, both put forward severe critiques of the performance of the political parties in both Argentina and Mexico.

In Argentina, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, the archbishop-cardinal of Buenos Aires, one of the few Latin American members of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuitas, promoted by John Paul II to become bishops and, even more, to become archbishop and cardinal during his long pontificate, issued a lengthy message (28 pages) in which he criticizes the performance of political leaders in his country stressing the negative role that political struggles have had for the development of democracy in Argentina.

The cardinal stresses the negative role of political struggles within the context of the forthcoming primary elections in Argentina. La Nación, a distant equivalent of The New York Times in Argentine journalism, endorsed Bergoglio’s critique of the politicos’ performance with extensive front page coverage. Moreover, La Nación quotes Bergoglio’s as saying that “political struggles are the great illness of Argentina.”

The second paragraph of La Nación’s note is a full quote of Bergoglio’s message stressing how: “while various interests play their game, afar from the needs of all, it is possible to see in the horizon the shadow of a cloud of social disarray.”

However, and this is relevant to understand the role and the aims of the Church in Latin American countries, Bergoglio’s document displays a broad and sound diagnosis of the situation in contemporary Argentina, the sources of the conflicts, and—more important—it offers a enlightening interpretation of the parable of the good Samaritan as an image to try build a solution for the conundrum of contemporary Argentinean politics.

Interestingly enough, La Nación—a newspaper that can hardly be identified as Catholic—provides a link to download the full message from Cardinal Bergoglio.

As far as Mexico is concerned, Terra, a pan-Latin American web-based service quotes the auxiliary bishop of Mexico City Felipe Tejeda who criticized the primary elections of the presidential candidates saying that the “expenses associated (with such elections) are scandalous and useless.” Here is necessary to stress that the ruling National Action Party (Christian democrat right-to-center) alone has authorized expenses of 350 million pesos (34 million U.S. dollars) for each of its four presidential hopefuls. It is not clear yet how much will the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI, social democrat) will authorize its pre-candidates to spend.

The “leftist” Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has not set a limit, but one of its most likely candidates, Mexico City’s mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador benefits from the huge budgets of the public relations and media areas of the City’s local government.

Moreover, once the candidates are nominated by the parties, the Electoral Federal Institute (IFE) will allocate federal public monies, plus time in the national, and regional TV and radio networks, plus the monies that the parties will get from the local governments in states (like Nuevo León or the Federal District) where on top of the federal election, local elections happen simultaneously, plus marginal private contributions that the parties and candidates could raise for up to a ten percent of the total public contributions to their campaigns.

These sums will be pre-set by the IFE by September 2005. Then the Secretary of the Treasury (Hacienda) will incorporate such request in the National Budgets that will present some time between the end of September and the end of October 2006, waiting for approval by Mexico’s lower chamber (Cámara de Diputados).

The Church is not the first, and will hardly be the last to criticize how much money the Mexican parties get from the Treasury. In Argentina, the Church’s criticism of the politicos’ behavior is a concern shared by many other political actors in that country. What is relevant, however, is the fact that the Church enjoys in both countries and all over Latin America great levels of trust and public support. However, it is not clear what will the Church make out of such trust when confronting increasingly complex, impoverished, and fractured societies.

Criticizing the expenditure in political struggles is a rather easy task. What is necessary now is to confront the challenge to become an efficient political actor to promote agreements and reforms in countries in great need of them. It could be possible for the Church to perform that important role, although it is clear that it will be necessary to improve its ability to facilitate the dialogue without seeking to push forward its own institutional agenda.

That is easier in Mexico, where the Church does not receive and is not asking for public subsidies. In Argentina, because of the agreements signed during the 1960s (civil governments), ratified by the military rulers of the 1970s and Mr. Menem's democratically elected governments is harder. Mostly, because for the Church there is always the risk of opening a debate that could make them loose more than they could get, especially in the topic of religious education.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Church: Silence and Expectations

A constant in different polls carried all over Latin America is the great level of trust (confianza) that the Catholic Church enjoys. Latinobarómetro, Consulta Mitofsky, and many other pollsters regularly register trust levels for the Catholic Church well into the 70 and even 80 percent.

This perception (which is nothing but that) is the source of great tension and debates inside and outside the Church. Do such measures represent an unrestrained ability of the Church to set the public agenda in the countries of the region, in ways similar to those of Italy? Hardly.

Is the Catholic Church falling in patterns similar to those of Europe? Hardly. Is competition with other Christian (Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals) or non-Christian (Jehovah’s Witnesses) or para-Christian (Mormons) denominations shaping the Latin American landscape in similar ways to those observed since the mid 18th century in what is nowadays the United States? I do not think so.

The evolution of Catholic Church, and religion at large, in the region follows historically situated patterns. There are some similarities with processes going on in different countries of Europe, and some with processes occurring in the United States, but for the most part, Latin America poses a key challenge to the future of Catholicism.

I think that even the Vatican itself is having a hard time figuring out how to address the religious conundrum posed by Latin America. A way to measure the problems that the Vatican is having trying to develop pastoral policies for the region is to observe the silence of the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI. So far, there has been no specific statement on Latin America as a region. The pope expressed his concern with the evolution of the conflict in Bolivia, but that has been it, with the dubius addition of a brief prayer in Spanish before an image of the Virgion of Guadalupe a few days after his election.

However, the clock is ticking and some definitions will come in the coming days. Such possibility is stressed by the fact that it is expected that the pope will attend, as his predecessors did, the General Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM, for its initials in Spanish). It is not clear yet if what will be the Fifth of such conferences will happen either in Argentina or in Chile.

What is clear is that, after a statement of Msgr. Carlos Aguiar Retes, first vice-president of the CELAM, on the possibility of such trip a wave of expectation swept both Argentina and Chile.

Benedict XVI’s silence about Latin America is more compelling when one considers that the region is the global stronghold of Roman Catholicism, and that Brazil, Mexico, and the United States (with a large Hispanic population) are the three countries with the largest Catholic populations worldwide.

The pope, so far, has been trying to smooth the relations with the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. The move makes sense from an European perspective when one considers the challenges that Catholics, Orthodox, and Lutheran churches face there, and the fact that it is far easier to find a solution to the dispute with the Orthodox churches than to find it with the Lutheran or Anglican churches, mostly because of the issue of the female priesthood.

It is clear that if the Catholic and Orthodox churches expect to have a future in Europe they need to learn to coexist. Moreover, they need to learn to share resources and to face together the challenges of the double process of de-Christianization of Europe: on the one hand, the pressure created by the Islam, and on the other hand, the changes brought by the secularization process in Europe (although such process is far from being universal).

However, it would be a huge mistake if the Vatican forgets Latin America. In Latin America, the Church faces equally important challenges that require not only resources, but above all the imagination and compromise of the church’s grassroots organizations, hierarchies, and the laypersons. Moreover, unlike Europe, where it is forced to seek collaboration and support from the Orthodox churches, in Latin America the Church goes by itself.

Friday, June 10, 2005

New President, New Hopes?

Carlos Mesa's presidency in Bolivia finally ended when the Congress decided to accept his resignation. Mesa’s, the most recent “interrupted presidency” in the long lineage of “interrupted presidencies” in the poorest country in South America, was an actor of a process that put the country at the brink of civil war and, eventually, of its disintegration.

The independent movement based in Santa Cruz, the wealthiest province in Bolivia, has achieved an unexpected level of support that has created expectations about a possible quick, easy solution to the longstanding problems or poverty and marginalization that have plagued the country since its very origins.

So far, it is not clear if the recently appointed president, Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, the former Chief Justice of Bolivia’s Supreme Court, will be able to carry the reforms he has sketched so far. What is necessary to keep in mind is that there is no easy way out to Bolivia’s legacy of poverty and institutional conflict. In addition, at least in the coming days, Rodríguez Veltzé will be forced to perform his duties as president under the same rules and with the same institutional design that damaged Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s and Carlos Mesa’s presidencies.

Moreover, that institutional design has been behind the long chain of “interrupted presidencies,” coups, and political instability that has plagued Bolivia’s history in the twentieth century.

So far, his main proposal implies a significant change in the institutional design: moving the country from a central presidential design, into something similar to a federal presidential system although interestingly enough I have not been able to find specific references to a reform aimed to move Bolivia from its status as a centralist regime into a federalist one.

It is important to stress that he has been appointed for a very short, six-month term, which will give him little or no effective power to carry away the kind of deep reforms that Bolivia needs at this point. The risk, of course is that his presidency could end up becoming some sort of lame duck and that the truce he requested will be actually granted just as a way to set the stage for the new presidential election. And here a painful remainder, such election will be affected (unless an overhaul of the electoral system is achieved before Christmas), once again, by the institutional design flaws (ballotage, as an example) that explain Bolivia’s never ending crisis.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Mexico's Electoral Labyrinth

In July, Mexico's most populated state, the State of Mexico (hehe, we had some problems figuring out new names for the states) will held its gubernatorial election.

Traditionally, since the late 1970s that race has been seen as the key match of the electoral calendar of the year, but mostly it has been seen as a general rehearsal for the general elections that are usually held one year after. This year, however, the situation will not be like that. The numbers in the state race will hardly match the expected numbers in the presidential election.

As far as the state election is concerned, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the old PRI, Enrique Peña Nieto, has a relatively easy advantage on most polls and will be, if nothing changes, the winner of the election, however such win will mean little or nothing for the outcome of the presidential election in 2006.

The “leftist” candidate (and I use such term as loosely as possible) of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) Yeidckol Polevensky Gurvitz has a dark history of name changes (she is not Polish as her name will hint), family conflicts and lies that have been haunting her electoral bid. Fortunately, she is far behind in the race with little or no chances of a come back.

Rubén Mendoza Ayala, the candidate of the National Action Party (PAN) started the race with some advantage, however poor decision-making, and the lack any relevant ideas has put him in an increasingly weak position. During the weekend, he starred one of Mexico’s worst displays of electoral behavior. While heading a rally with sympathizers in a small town, he charged against the owner of a pick-up truck filled with balls marked with propaganda of the PRI’s candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto. Moreover, he instigated the crowd to take over the balls and to hit the owner of the truck.

As of yesterday, the candidate had repaid the balls, and did a tour of some of Mexico’s news outlets claiming that was the victim of a conspiracy. Fortunately, someone in the crowd had a video camera on, so his speech instigating the crowd, insulting the PRI’s candidate and charging against the owner of the pick-up were all recorded in vivid colors and displayed by Mexico’s newscasts. In the video, it is possible to see Mendoza Ayala calling himself “ugly as all other Mexicans” and yet, claiming that the electoral race is not a beauty contest. Mendoza’s rant and rave came very close to mutiny.

As usual in contemporary Mexico, Mendoza has been talking of a media conspiracy instead of acknowledging his responsibility in the violent behavior of his sympathizers, while making all sorts of sexual innuendos with references to the balls, his alleged ugliness, and—to fully integrate the picture—with sexual insults that involve the mother of the candidate of the PRI.

What a shame.

In any case, I expect a close call in the election in the state of Mexico, with Enrique Peña Nieto as the winner, but with all sorts of pressure from the “leftist” PRD’s candidate who is running with the support of Mexico City’s mayor and future presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The candidate of the PAN, the party of Vicente Fox, the President of the country, will continue with his allegations of conspiracy and perhaps electoral fraud, which ultimately will be dismissed by his own party.

Perhaps the only good thing that will come out of this is the realization among the PRI leaders that they cannot waste time or effort in more internal conflicts. If so, they will be able to concentrate their efforts in the election of 2006, which will be—by all accounts—the toughest in Mexico’s history, a new and more painful labyrinth for which the old easy recipes of democratization and dismissal of the old authoritarian regime will not work any more.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Bolivia or the eternal crisis

A few hours after Carlos Mesa's new attempt to step down as president of Bolivia (his most recent attempt happened in March of this year), the Congress has been unable to reach an agreement to hold the joint session that will analyze if they accept or not (as it happened in March) the president's decision to resign. Unfortunately, the solution to this conflict will hardly come that easy.

When Mesa first tried to resign, he proposed a series of reforms that included the disolution of the Congress in order to build a new representation of the Congress. A new Congress able to better represent Bolivia. That, as many other propositions, was rejected by the Congress. All his other propositions to push forward a political and a fiscal reform were rejected too.

What is left now is a country sunk in the worst crisis of its history, with little or no hope for a solution. Again, the answer to many of its troubles lie deep in the very configuration of its institutions. It is not out of chance that Bolivia has been one of the most unstable and poor countries of the region. It is because its institutions are designed to perpetuate chaos and instability by over-emphasizing a separation of powers that is so perfect that prevents any collaboration.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Bolivia, Once Again

Tonight, as I was doing my last tour of the day over the Internet, I found the information of Carlos Mesa's resignation as president of Bolivia.

What a shame, and what a waste.

Mesa has been trying to find a solution to Bolivia's catastrophe, to Bolivia's labyrinth since the end of 2004 with little or no success A few weeks ago, he tried to find a solution to this conflict by resigning his post. The congress, immersed as it has been in the kinds of power struggles that are the trademark of presidential regimes and lie at the very core of Bolivia's longstanding history of instability, conflict, and poverty, will have, one more time a chance to try to find some sort of solution to its own riddle.

Unfortunately, I am skeptic about a possible solution in the short run. On the contrary, I think that the contradictions that have affected Bolivia in the last 15 years are for from solved. That is the case of the debate about the nationalization of the oil industry, a measure that will prompt the immediate rejection of the United States, its oil industry, and the I International Monetary Fund.

Again in the Times

This Monday, The New York Times published a brief piece about an angry Condolezza Rice criticizing the major Latin American countries (Mexico, Argentina, Brazil) for being unwilling to support the latest pipe dream of George Bush as far as Latin America is concerned.

Mr. Bush wants the Organization of American States to develop "a process to assess, as appropriate, situations that may affect the development of a member state's democratic political institutional process or the legitimate exercise of power."

Wisely enough, the ambassadors of the aforementioned countries plus Chile, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, let Mrs. Rice know in advance that they were going to oppose the creation of such "process," signaling the death of this veiled intervention sponsored by the White House on the internal affairs of the countries of the region.

The piece published by the Times emphasizes the fact that Venezuela was the undisclosed destinatary of the so-called "process," while stressing also how hard it was for Mrs. Rice to digest this new defeat for the Bush administration and their aim to become the benchmark of democratic practices all over the world.

And of course, hehe, the irony of it all is that when one compares the U.S. democracy, its standards, its abuses, the gerrymandering with other democracies of the world, there is no way to think that mr. Bush could go around lecturing on (and, what is worse, sanctioning) democratic practices.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Bolivia: Back in the Times

Sadly, Bolivia is once again in the pages of The New York Times. Sadly, because unlike what happens with China, Japan, or Europe, Latin American countries reach the pages of The Times only when tragedies have happened or are about to happen. Bolivia is actually a special case among the sea of tragedies that happen on a regular basis in the region. So many, that the very definition of tragedy has gone through an overhaul when one needs to address whatever happens in that country.

With the patronizing tone that erases from his name and skin the sin of being a "Latino ," Juan Forero, the Times correspondent in Santa Fe de Bogota, offers a sketchy account of Bolivia's recent crisis, with little or no context to understand it. In any case, English speaking audiences have now a glimpse to one of South America's sadest stories ever, even if they get it from Colombia, which is as absurd a if I was writing a a journalist from New York about stories happening in Toronto or Montreal, Canada.

They do so, but unfortunately little or no change can be expected as a consequence of the sudden notoriety of that country's crisis. In the short term, little or nothing will change, mostly because the country is deep in a political deadlock hard to break, and whose consequences are even harder to foresee. The fact that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America makes the whole situation even worse, because it will always be possible to keep large sectors of Bolivia's poor mobilized and as radicalized as possible, preventing any solution to the many issues that affect that country.

The Organization of American States has been traditionally unable to address crises like this, and the fact that OAS has now a Chilean general-secretary, former Interior minister Luis Miguel Insulza, will make any intervention of the regional organization harder, since Bolivia and Chile have no diplomatic relations, because of Chile's military aggression that locked out Bolivia in the 19th century.

Bolivian President Carlos Mesa has been trying to reach an agreement with Evo Morales, the leader of the coca growers and the radical voice of the opposition, pretty much since his inauguration, with no success at all. Moreover,the fact that the country is a centralized presidential republic, with a very unfair income distribution, and a very unstable political system, only makes harder to achieve the kinds of agreements that the country needs, mostly because as soon as a new president is inaugurated the cycle comes to life again.

Mesa is offering a broad overhauling of the country's institutional design, mainly he is offering more autonomy to Bolivia's deportments, but so far no word on a possible change from the current presidential regime to a parliamentary one.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Dutch No to Europe

As I was teaching today it came to me. Of course, the happiest guy in the World now that Europe has imploded is George Bush.

The French and Dutch have decided to blow away a great political and economic experiment that would have been the only rational counterweight, the check-and-balance, to the military and market led globalization heralded by the U.S. Now, the only possibiity to overcome George Bush's unipolar pipe dream is China.

The fear of the Polish plumber and the Turkish laborer was more powerful than the hope of a better, more humane form of globlization. So much for the French crap when criticizing the U.S. voters for choosing Bush on the grounds of fear. Both French and Dutch voters decided on similar grounds with the same outcome: giving Bush more power to do whatever he wants worldwide.