EL PASO, Texas and CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico – When Pope Francis visits Ciudad Juárez on Wednesday, city officials hope that the international attention will change its reputation as the homicidal, lawless capital of Mexican drug violence.
Five years ago, at the height of the city’s instability, it registered over 3,000 homicides annually. But that was before a renewed push for less corrupt policing, the local victory of the Sinaloa cartel and a retreat by the current Mexican government from a militarized approach to defeating drug cartels.
In 2015, the city recorded just 311 homicides, the lowest murder rate in nearly a decade. Philadelphia, by contrast, with roughly the same population, recorded 277 homicides in 2015.
But it’s not just Juarenses who hope the papal presence can rebrand the city. It’s also El Paso, which lies just across the border, and which is one of the safest cities in the United States, even at the height of the violent battle between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels. In fact, Beto O’Rourke, who has represented the 16th Congressional district that includes El Paso since 2013, had hoped to work with Mexican officials to use to visit to highlight U.S.-Mexican relations on a far grander scale.
“There was an attempt that we were part of, short-lived, that was ambitious, to construct at small bridge across the [Rio Grande] to allow the Pope to sort of walk across and put his hand on the border fence,” O’Rourke said in an interview late last month. “I spoke to the diocese, to the bishop. I think that would have done so much to bring home to people how connected our two countries are. It would have been a powerful message.”
Though the plans fell through, O’Rourke will attend this week’s papal mass in Juárez, and he hoped that many El Pasoans will have a chance to see Francis, the first Latin American pope, as he drives along a border that divides one community into two cities that belong to two countries, the Apollonian yin of El Paso counterbalancing the Dionysian yang of Juárez.
In snowy New Hampshire, voters endorsed another view about the U.S.-Mexican border last week when Donald Trump swept to a crushing victory in the Republican presidential primary. When he announced his candidacy for the nomination last June in the lobby of Manhattan’s Trump Tower, the businessman attacked Mexico as an enemy of the United States, a country “killing us economically,” and he painted the vision of a southern border overrun with immigrants “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime,” labeling many would-be migrants as “rapists,” even while conceding that some “are good people.” Continue reading For El Paso-Juárez, Trump’s vision of Mexico based on misconception→
Days after Pope Francis left a historic visit to the United States, news emerged that he spent part of his time at an unannounced meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk waging a fight to withhold marriage licenses to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
As The New York Times reported earlier this morning, Francis met with the Kentucky woman last Thursday at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C.:
On Tuesday night, her lawyer, Mathew D. Staver, said in a telephone interview that Ms. Davis and her husband, Joe, were sneaked into the Vatican Embassy by car on Thursday afternoon. Francis gave her rosaries and told her to “stay strong,” the lawyer said. The couple met for about 15 minutes with the pope, who was accompanied by security guards, aides and photographers. Mr. Staver said he expected to receive photographs of the meeting from the Vatican soon. On Wednesday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that the meeting took place, but he declined to elaborate. “I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no other comments to add,” he said.
Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University, argues that the meeting undermines the rule of law:
When Francis met with Davis — who let it be noted is an evangelical Protestant, although her parents apparently are Catholic — he was sending the wrong message, namely that there’s something sympathetic or even legitimate about public official refusing to do his or her job when religious teaching goes the other way.
Running for president, John F. Kennedy had to overcome the Protestant allegation that as a Catholic he would obey the pope and not the laws and Constitution of the U.S. In a famous speech, Kennedy made it clear that he wouldn’t take instructions from Rome. And he said he would be a president “whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.” That’s exactly what’s required of all public officials. And no one should undercut it, pope or otherwise.
For better or worse, the Vatican City is a state (albeit a very small one), and both the Vatican City, a traditional jurisdictional-based sovereign, and the Holy See, the universal ecclesiastical government of the Catholic Church have their own versions of the ‘national interest.’ That is, the Vatican and the Holy See both work to perpetuate their global power and influence, chiefly by maintaining and growing the base of 1.2 billion Catholic believers worldwide.
So it should come as no surprise that any pope, Francis or otherwise, would seek to empower the religious influence of Christians, including Protestants like Davis, even if it means trashing the rule of law. It’s no shock to learn that the Catholic Church has often joined the side of illiberalism in history.
The Vatican City came into existence on in 1929 as a sovereign entity when Italy’s Fascist leader at the time, Benito Mussolini, signed the Lateran Treaty with the Holy See, settling a long-running question that followed Italy’s unification in the 1860s. The support that the Catholic Church provided to Italy’s Fascist government is well-documented. Moreover, the Church played an important postwar role in bolstering the essentially one-party rule of Democrazia Cristiana (DC, Christian Democracy), making the Church all too often bedfellows with the Sicilian Mafia and other uncomfortable backers of the Christian Democrats.
As recently as 2008, the Vatican helped pressure senators in Italy’s parliament to bring down the elected government of center-left prime minister Romano Prodi because it fiercely opposed Prodi’s effort to introduce same-sex civil unions. Prodi, it’s true, pushed ahead with the vote despite warnings from many politicians that it would cause his government to collapse. The Church, for what it’s worth, did not force anyone in Italy to vote for Silvio Berlusconi in the resulting election, who won and would serve as prime minister until 2011. But it’s impossible to avoid the uncomfortable conclusion that the Vatican played a significant role in Prodi’s fall. Moreover, Italy today remains one of the only western European countries that lacks marriage equality. That’s almost entirely due to the Vatican’s influence.
Throughout most of the world, the Vatican’s power is limited to ‘soft power’ — that is, the authority that it commands as an arbiter of moral and ethical standards for 1.2 billion Catholics and, likely, throughout all of Christendom. Sometimes, a pope’s influence is political, like John Paul II’s particular experience and anti-Communist credentials as a Polish national serving at the height of the Cold War. Francis, the first Latin American pope, has a particular hold in South America, especially in Brazil and his native Argentina, that mixes religious belief with national pride.
Despite the Fellini-esque excitement that swept the American capital over Pope Francis’s first-ever trip to the United States, it’s the arrival of China’s president, Xi Jinping (习近平), this week that will have the broader impact on global affairs.
While the pope invoked human rights when he spoke about the environment in spiritual terms at the United Nations General Assembly Friday morning, Xi was preparing to announce that China would initiate in 2017 its own national cap-and-trade program, giving teeth to a pledge for carbon emissions in the world’s most populous country to peak in 2030, declining thereafter, part of an ambitious bilateral agreement signed between the United States and China last year.
It’s hard to think of two actors in international affairs who reside more starkly on the spectrum of ‘soft power’ and ‘hard power’ more than the two men who visited Washington this week. Francis, nominally the head of a country of less than 500 residents and 110 acres, leads a church with over 1.2 billion members, and he carries the moral authority with Catholicism’s believers to influence everything from LGBT rights to immigration reform. But Xi, as the leader of a country with 1.3 billion people, wields the political, military and economic power that comes from controlling the world’s largest economy and military force.
For all the talk about Francis’s ability to deploy soft power with tactical skill, it is Xi’s hard power that is setting the agenda for climate change policy around the world, and the dual contrast on Friday revealed the limits of soft power. There’s no indication that Francis’s exhortations have made any difference on the willingness of the Chinese government to embrace transformative environmental policy.
What’s more, Xi’s increasingly progressive stand on climate change isn’t driven by the desire for international praise or even necessarily the merits of a policy that will reduce global emissions, but by hard domestic politics. In a one-party state, the Chinese Communist Party knows that it ‘owns’ every problem in China (there’s no alternative Democratic or Republican Party it can blame), so Xi knows that his government has to be seen as doing something to ameliorate his country’s crippling and health-threatening pollution. Continue reading Xi’s hard power trumps papal soft power on climate change→
It’s far from scientific, but less than 24 hours after Republicans appeared to defeat US president Barack Obama in midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections, Russian president Vladimir Putin defeated him to the top spot on Forbes‘s 72 Most Powerful People in the World.
The rankings don’t really mean that much in the grand scheme of things, of course.
The Forbes rationale?
We took some heat last year when we named the Russian President as the most powerful man in the world, but after a year when Putin annexed Crimea, staged a proxy war in the Ukraine and inked a deal to build a more than $70 billion gas pipeline with China (the planet’s largest construction project) our choice simply seems prescient. Russia looks more and more like an energy-rich, nuclear-tipped rogue state with an undisputed, unpredictable and unaccountable head unconstrained by world opinion in pursuit of its goals.
Hard to argue with that, I guess.
But the rankings represent a nice snapshot of what the US (and even international) media mainstream believe to be the hierarchy of global power. Though I’m not sure why Mitch McConnell, soon to become the U.S. senate majority leader, isn’t on the list.
So who else placed in the sphere of world politics this year?
Obama ranked at No. 2 (From the Forbes mystics: ‘One word sums up his second place finish: caution. He has the power but has been too cautious to fully exercise it.’).
Chinese president Xi Jinping, who took office in late 2012 and early 2013, ranked at No. 3. (Tough break for the leader of the world’s most populous country!)
Pope Francis, ranked at No. 4, even though Argentina lost this year’s World Cup finals to Germany.
Angela Merkel, ranked at No. 5, third-term chancellor of Germany and the queen of the European Union.
Janet Yellen, ranked at No. 6, the chair of the US Federal Reserve.
Mario Draghi, ranked at No. 8, the president of the European Central Bank.
David Cameron, ranked (appropriately enough) at No. 10, the Conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom, who faces a tough reelection battle in May 2015.
Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, No. 11, the king of Saudi Arabia.