Tensions flare during recent global leadership changes

The last month has been replete with leadership changes across the world. These shifts in power mark uncertain futures for both citizens of these nations and for American foreign policy. Leaders and citizens in many nations seek to curtail the influence of the United States and Europe. Although executed in a variety of fashions and with different levels of interpreted legitimacy, elections were held in Venezuela, China, Kenya, and the Vatican.

The death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez has led to an uncertain future for Venezuela, as well as an election replete with personal attack and theories about the death of the nation’s longtime leader. The leading Chávez supporters is Nicolás Maduro, whose status as Chávez’s preferred successor is the interim president’s best hope for election.

Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who unsuccessfully ran against Chávez in the last election, is again vying for the presidency.  (“The ghost of Chavez haunts Venezuela’s election” The Atlantic, 3.23.2013). After Chávez defeated him in last October’s election, Capriles must overcome the legacy of the wildly popular president to secure the office (“Venezuelan election officials: Chávez re-elected as president, defeats Capriles” CNN, 10.07.2012).

The race, which will be decided on April 14th, has turned into free-for-all of personal attacks, with Maduro calling his opponent a “poisoned dart of hatred and provocation” and taunting him with, “I do have a wife, you know?  I do actually like women!”

Caprilles has embraced the confrontational mood, branding his opponent “the candidate of [Cuban leader] Raúl Castro” (“Battling it out: Venezuela’s presidential campaign heats up” The Economist, 3.22.13).

Maduro has attempted to capitalize on loyalty to Chávez by implying that the former president was killed by “dark forces” from outside the country. While no nation-specific accusations followed, the international community has attempted to uncover Maduro’s meaning. Along with his recent dismissal of two members of the American diplomatic staff on charges of conspiracy, Maduro seems set to distance himself from the United States (The Economist).

If he is elected, Maduro’s politics will dictate Venezuelan relations with America for the forseeable future. Chávez became notorious for seizing control of both foreign and domestic oil operations in petroleum-rich Venezuela and then failing to pay contractors–one US firm faced losses of $241 million (“Chávez Seizes Assets of Oil Contractors” The New York Times, 5.08.2009). Should Maduro continue in his predecessor’s footsteps, outside investors can only expect more struggles in dealing with Venezuela.

Suspicion of the West is also at work in China, under the auspices of the new chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC). Educated in North Korea, Chairman Zhang Dejiang’s fortunes took a turn for the better last year, as he was appointed head over the massive metropolitan area of Chongqing. Earlier in his career, he presided over Guangdong province, and stifled media coverage of a lethal outbreak of the SARS virus.  (“Meet the men who will rule China” Time, 11.15.2012).

Mr. Zhang was elected chairman of the 175-member Standing Committee on March 14th. The committee’s members are selected from the general body of the NPC which has nearly three thousand deputies (The National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, 3.26.2013).

Meanwhile, protests in Hong Kong continue as residents demand government reform (“As Hong Kong Presses for More Democracy, Friction With Beijing Rises” The New York Times, 3.15.2013). Political expert Willy Lam, author of five books on China, noted that the incoming leaders of China share an inflexible commitment to maintaining control of the Hong Kong.

Lam also said that these leaders believe these protests are part of a campaign of subversion by the United States, only increasing their reluctance to reform (The New York Times).

Hong Kong’s free-market economy has attracted businesses of all types–the CIA World Factbook ranks it tenth in terms of GDP per capita (“Country Comparison: GDP per capita (PPP)” The World Factbook, 2012).

Mainland China has also become a major financial partner to the US in recent years.  China holds more of the United States federal debt than any other entity, barring the Federal Reserve itself. While Defense Secretary Leon Panetta maintained that China could not effectively use the United States Department of the Treasury securities it holds as a financial weapon, his report acknowledged that market disruptions were likely if China dumped it assets in response to tension with the United States(“China’s U.S. Debt Holdings Aren’t Threat, Pentagon Says” Bloomberg, 9.10.2012).

In Kenya, the March 9th conclusion of the presidential election has not abated tensions, but increased them. Uhuru Kenyatta carried the election by the slimmest of margins, with just over 50% of the vote.

His opponent, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is challenging the result of the election, claiming that Kenyatta conspired with the electoral commission.

In 2007, a similar challenge by Odinga unleashed a wave of violence that left 1,200 dead (“Kenya’s Odinga challenges election result” Al-Jazeera, 3.17.2013).

Despite fears that more killings would follow Prime Minister Odinga’s announcement, the dispute has thus far been relatively peaceful, with Odinga’s advisor Salim Lone stating that the candidate would “very strongly ask people to stay calm” (“Kenya Race Is Said to Have Winner, but Rival Won’t Concede” The New York Times, 3.08.2013).

Kenyatta’s election comes amid the specter of his indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.  The ICC claims Kenyatta was behind the 2007 election bloodshed.

Kenyans, however, at least on the surface, and if the election is considered free and fair, appear content with Kenyatta, and the massive celebration of his election was a rebuttal to the ICC and other Western powers seeking to dictate the course Kenya’s political system takes (“Did the ICC help Uhuru Kenyatta win Kenyan election?” BBC News 3.11.2013).

Hostile treatment of foreign dignitaries and reporters became more common as the election neared (“Kenya’s Election: What Uhuru Kenyatta’s Victory Means for Africa” Time, 3.09.2013).

The position of United States in this controversy is delicate: while a supporter of the ICC, America cooperates closely with Kenya, and the two countries have become partners in the war on terror (BBC News).

Pope Francis I’s March 13 papal ascension marks important changes in the history of the papacy–first, because the Argentinian is the first pope ever to hail from the Western Hemisphere (“New Pope Opens Holy Week at Vatican on Palm Sunday” ABC News, 3.24.2013). Second, he is the first pope in six hundred years to be confirmed in office while the previous pontiff is still alive (“Viewpoint: Does Pope Francis’ Outreach to Non-Catholics Signal Deeper Reform?” Time, 3.23.2013). Francis’s predecessor, Benedict, will take the title of pope emeritus (“Pope Francis tells Benedict, ‘We are brothers’” USA Today, 3.23.2013).

It seems that greater inter-religious dialogue is on the agenda for Pope Francis I; he stated that, “It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people. I am thinking particularly of dialogue with Islam.”

Other memebers of the Catholic Church hope that this pope will address the recent sexual abuse scandals surrounding the Church.

The new pontiff met with many religious leaders after his selection. Significantly, Bartholomew I, patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church, was also present–a gesture of rapprochement from both sides that has not taken place since 1053 (Time). As violent conflicts based on religious creed continue to spring up, Pope Francis has stepped up to the daunting task of using his position as a force for peace.

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