We find out something about the new Pope and Operation Condor, in his home country of Argentina, China hands over power to a new leader, the worlds largest oil importer, economic breakthroughs, bad news in Afghanistan, suicide bombings and massive drug busts.
The Vatican has not been without its share of scandals in recent years, and the media has been trying to frame the selection of the next pontiff as a time for the Catholic Church to clear the decks and distance itself from recent scandals. Instead, they seem to have steered directly into an entirely new controversy.
On Wednesday, the papal conclave elected former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the next Pope. Adopting the regnal name Francis I, it did not take long for the world to discover that Bergoglio himself is mired in controversy with a shocking past that is now coming to light. The skeletons in Bergoglio's closet date back to the 1970s, after the military dictatorship in Argentina had begun to actively participate in Operation Condor, a scheme to wage a bloody campaign of violence and suppression against leftist activists that included Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. During the campaign, also known as the Dirty War, over 30,000 dissidents were “disappeared” in South America.
Condor, of course, could not have taken place without at least the tacit acceptance of the Catholic Church, still a dominant cultural force in the region at that time. In that respect, Bergoglio, as the highest-ranking Jesuit in Argentina at the time, has a lot to answer for. A fascinating tidbit that was dug up in the early hours of Bergoglio's election was an accusation from a Guardian article from 2011. In the article, Hugh O'Shaugnessy reported that Argentinian journalist Horacio Verbitsky had documented a disturbing tidbit from the Dirty War. At the time, the article read:
“[Verbitsky] recounts how the Argentine navy with the connivance of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, hid from a visiting delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission the dictatorship's political prisoners. Bergoglio was hiding them in nothing less than his holiday home in an island called El Silencio in the River Plate. The most shaming thing for the church is that in such circumstances Bergoglio's name was allowed to go forward in the ballot to chose the successor of John Paul II. What scandal would not have ensued if the first pope ever to be elected from the continent of America had been revealed as an accessory to murder and false imprisonment.”
The story was picked up by Business Insider and found its way into the alternative blogosphere, bringing intense scrutiny of the serious charges. It looks like the Guardian scrambled very quickly to amend the story, removing all mention of Bergoglio from the paragraph and adding an editorial note stating that the article as written two years ago had “wrongly suggested” the Bergoglio link and “wrongly described” El Silencio as his holiday home. Whether an attempt to to cover up Bergoglio's shady past or an attempt to cover up their own atrocious journalism, the Guardian story is not the only headache for the new Bishop of Rome. Also making the rounds is the story of Myriam Bergam, a human rights lawyer who tried to bring Bergoglio to court for his role in refusing to aid two Jesuit priests who had been kidnapped by Argentinian death squads. Twice invoking his right under Argentinian law to refuse to appear in court, he finally relented in 2010, but his testimony was seen as “evasive” according to El Mundo.
Ironically, all of this comes just one week after an historic trial of 25 former officials associated with Operation Condor kicked off in Argentina. The men, including 24 Argentinians and one Uruguayan, are accused of crimes against humanity for their role in the bloodshed unleashed by the operation. The trial is the largest of its kind in the Condor case so far, and is expected to hear testimony from over 500 witnesses over the course of the next two years. It brings public attention to Operation Condor once again just as Francis I takes the reins at the Vatican, making Bergoglio's past that much more uncomfortable for the church.
Meanwhile in Beijing, China has officially handed power over to new leader Xi Jinping in a meaningless 2952 to 1 vote at the National People's Congress (NPC). Although the question of who cast that lone vote of dissent is somewhat interesting in and of itself, the result was a foregone conclusion and the formality of an “election” around the handover of power says perhaps everything one needs to know about the Chinese political system. Lest there be any doubt about the direction of the country under Xi, the rather laboriously named Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (a type of preliminary event to the NPC soliciting input from 2000 officially approved political representatives and stakeholders) just reaffirmed commitment to China's socialist path, stating that “We need to more strictly follow the socialist path of political development with Chinese characteristics, not imitate Western political systems under any circumstances.”
This first meeting of the NPC in the Xi era is being watched closely for signs of where the country is headed. Having just surpassed the US as the world's largest trading nation last month and eclipsing the US as the world's largest oil importer earlier this week, the country of over 1.3 billion is set to overtake the US as the world's largest economy by 2016. All of this combines to make the next 10 years under Xi potentially the most important for China in the past 1000 years, and there are as many potential pitfalls in this economic ascent as there are potential rewards. What is about to take place in the country is one of the largest transformations of a society ever to take place in human history, with a mind-boggling $6 trillion urbanization plan which will see 400 million people moved from the Chinese countryside into the cities over the course of the coming decade. The scale of transformation taking place in China right now is difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to predict. All that can be done for the moment is to read the tea leaves to see how the Communist Party is going to try to cope with these changes.
Some interesting tidbits have emerged in recent months that might give some clues as to the direction of that change. One proposal tabled at the NPC by Chief Justice Wang Shengjun calls for a dedicated intellectual property rights court to be established. Whatever the sincerity or trustworthiness of such a court, the mere suggestion shows that China is increasingly willing to play ball (or at least pay lip service) to the spirit of the WTO. Although no one expects a genuine attempt by party leadership to crack down on the rampant bootlegging and counterfeiting that is still a mainstay of the economy any time soon, the gesture will at least be welcomed by the country's trading partners in the west.
Another interesting proposal came earlier this month from Zhang Gaoli, a Standing Committee member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party's Central Committee. He called for breakthroughs in allowing private capital investment in key sectors, including finance, energy and transportation over the next five years. Again, it is difficult to know to what extent this suggestion will be seriously considered, but that it is even being reported in the semi-official Chinese media should be taken as a significant sign in and of itself.
Over in Afghanistan things have begun heating up once again this week under a flurry of bombings, canceled meetings, accusations, and drug busts. Two suicide bombings timed to coincide with the visit of newly confirmed US Sec Def Chuck Hagel kicked off a week of renewed carnage and violence in the country. The bombings struck Kabul and Khost, killing nineteen. This was arguably not even the worst part of Hagel's trip, coming as it did on the heels of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's expulsion of US Special Forces from one of the country's provinces on accusations of abuse of Afghan civilians. Hagel's trip also coincided with a handover of a US detention facility that failed to take place because of disagreements with Afghan officials, a deadly attack in Wardak province where a shooter in an Afghan military or police uniform killed two US soldiers and injured seven more, and the downing of a NATO helicopter which killed five NATO officials.
Of all of the pieces of bad news on Hagel's trip, however, perhaps the most interesting was Karzai's assertion that the US is holding daily talks with the Taliban and is conspiring with the enemy to destabilize the country. This, he alleges, is meant to convince the public of the necessity of keeping troops in the country past the expected 2014 withdrawal date. Given that this statement is not only plausible, but actually to be expected, it should not be surprising that it has been treated as a paranoid rant by much of the American media. Hagel, for his part, has officially denied that the Taliban talks are ongoing, but it seems clear that US forces will not be completely withdrawn in 2014, just as there are still troops in Iraq. Afghanistan is too geostrategic a country for the US to give up voluntarily, and Karzai understands this. Precisely why he is bringing all of this out into the open at this point remains something of a mystery. The logical conclusion is that he believes that a breaking from his usual stance of deference to the occupying US forces will redeem himself in the eyes of his people before he is inevitably forced out of office.
Another intriguing story from Afghanistan this week comes from Nangarhar Province, where Russian authorities helped seize 21 tons of heroin and morphine. For many years the largest destination for Afghan's opium crop was Russia, but that has altered drastically during the NATO occupation era. Now, Afghanistan is supplying over 90% of the world's heroin, much of it finding its way to Europe and the United States. Russia has been eager to step up poppy eradication campaigns, but the US government has long dragged its heels. This latest seizure, done with the help of a Russian Federal Drug Control Service helicopter, is yet another indication of growing Russian impatience with the NATO-protected heroin trade in the country.