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Colombia

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Why Are Wars So Hard To End?

After 52 years of war, the guns finally fell silent in Colombia at midnight on Sunday, when permanent ceasefires were proclaimed both by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government.

But this only happened after 220,000 people had been killed and 7 million were displaced by the fighting – and it took four years just to negotiate the final peace deal. Yet the original causes of the Columban civil war have been largely irrelevant for decades. Why is it so hard to end a war?

We’re not talking about big conventional wars between major powers here. Those last only a few years (the two world wars), or a couple of months (India vs. Pakistan) or just a week or two (the Arab-Israeli wars). We’re talking about the low-intensity civil wars that go on for ages, like Northern Ireland (30 years), or Angola (42 years) – or maybe Syria.

The Syrian civil war is much more intense: as many Syrians have already been killed or fled from their homes in five years of war as the total number of victims of the Colombian civil war in half a century. But everybody in Syria is well aware that the civil war in next-door Lebanon, which has much the same mix of ethnic and religious identities, lasted for fifteen years.

When the fighting began in Colombia in 1964 the population was mainly rural, 40 percent were landless peasants, and barely half the country’s people were literate. It seemed an ideal environment for a Marxist guerilla movement promising land reform, and FARC fitted the bill perfectly.

FARC grabbed a lot of territory, but Colombian governments, though usually corrupt and incompetent, were never quite wicked and stupid enough to lose the war, and over the decades Colombia changed. The economy grew despite the fighting, there was a mass migration of peasants to the cities (partly driven by the fighting), and education worked its usual magic (98 percent of younger Colombians are now literate).

Land reform is still a big issue for the quarter of the population that remains on the land, and the current peace deal promises to deliver it, but even 20 years ago it was obvious that FARC could never win. The Colombia it had set out to change had changed without it, even despite it.

On the other hand, government troops could never root FARC out from its jungle strongholds entirely, so it was time to make peace. And the peace talks duly began in 1998 – and continued on and off until the final push for a settlement began four years ago under President Juan Manuel Santos. Why did it take so long?

Because the “losers” had not actually lost, though they could never win. FARC’s leaders and its 7,000 fighters had to be amnestied, given garantees for their safety after they disarmed, and even allowed to become a legitimate political party. The two sides were not divided by ethnicity or religion, but they had been killing each other for a long time and trust
was in short supply.

It took 17 years to reach this point, and even now the deal could collapse if Colombians do not vote in favour of it in a plebiscite on 2 October. They probably will approve it, but the vote could be close because so many people hate to see the rebels being “rewarded”, not punished.

Now consider Syria, where the destruction and the atrocities have been much worse. In Syria there are profound religious and ethnic cleavages, and it’s not just two sides fighting but five: the government, two mutually hostile organisations of Islamist jihadis (so-called Islamic State and the Nusra Front, now calling itself the “Army of Victory”), the remaining Arab insurgents of the “Free Syrian Army”, and the Syrian Kurds.

Each of the five sides has fought every one of the others at some point in the past five years. Not one of them has a reasonable prospect of establishing control over the whole country, but none of them has been driven out of the game by a decisive military defeat either.

Every one of the local sides depends heavily on foreign support, but the foreigners all have their own agendas. Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have all sent money and arms to various local players and even dropped bombs on the country, but the beneficiaries and the targets vary from time to time according to the foreigners’ political priorities of the moment.

There are those who see the increasing engagement of the United States and Russia in the Syrian war as a hopeful development, since if these two superpowers can agree (and they sometimes do) then maybe they could impose some kind of peace on the country. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be better than endless war.

Perhaps that is true, but it may just be wishful thinking. If a relatively simple, small-scale civil war like Colombia’s took so long to end, why would we expect Syria’s war to end any time soon? Remember Lebanon. Fifteen years.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 3 and 13. (“We’re…Syria; and “Every…moment”)

What is Required for Wars to End

29 October 2012

What is Required for Wars to End

By Gwynne Dyer

More or less at opposite ends of the world, two very long wars are coming to a negotiated end, with no victors and no vanquished. In the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino signed a peace agreement with the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on October 16 after more than 40 years of war. In Norway the next day, Colombia’s government began talks with the FARC rebels to end a war that has lasted for over 50 years.

Neither deal is yet complete, and in both wars there have been several previous peace deals that failed. But the omens are better this time, mainly because there is a lot more realism about what is possible and what is not.

“You can’t just ask the FARC to kneel down, surrender and give us the arms,” said the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, as the talks in Oslo began. “They will not do that, so there has to be some way out, and this way out has to be that you are able to participate in the political arena. This is the way any conflict is settled, not only the Colombian conflict.”

The Colombian war has gone on so long that neither side remotely resembles the adversaries of 50 years ago. The left-wing revolutionaries who once set out to win power through a guerilla war have become hereditary rebels who finance their operations through kidnapping and cocaine production.

At the same time, the repressive right-wing governments of the 1960s have given way to a more or less democratic system. The death squads are gone and the economy is growing fast. Time to stop, then. But how?

There are two reasons why there is more hope for this peace initiative than for its predecessors. The first is that FARC can no longer hope for an eventual victory, although it will be a crippling nuisance for another generation if it is not brought back into the political system. The other is that the two sides are not trying to solve all the country’s problems in these talks; they are just trying to end the fighting.

The talks, which will move to Cuba for the next round, deal with only five topics: rural development, FARC’s participation in democratic politics, an end to the fighting, an end to the drug trafficking, and justice for the many civilian victims of the war. Colombia has dozens of other issues that demand attention, but if you put them all on the table there will never be agreement.

Those other issues can and should be settled by the normal political process, in which FARC will play a legitimate part once the war is over. There will have to be an amnesty even for grave violations of human rights. Nor will the fighting stop during the negotiations: that is what provides the pressure for a deal. But this time, in the end, there will probably be a deal.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the long war between the central government and the Muslim minority on the big island of Mindanao is also heading for a peaceful resolution. It has been clear for some time that MILF could never achieve its goal of an independent Muslim state in western Mindanao—and it is also clear that MILF could go on fighting for another generation unless there is a deal.

So you might as well make a deal, and the only plausible one is that the Moros (Filipino Muslims) get a broad degree of self-government in the areas where they are the majority. There will be a referendum in 2015 to settle the size and shape of the new “Bangsamoro” region, but it will remain part of the Philippines, and Manila will retain control of defence, foreign policy, and the broad outlines of economic policy.

This is a bitter pill for MILF to swallow, especially as it was created by leaders who broke away from the old Moro National Liberation Front when it accepted exactly the same deal in the 1980s. But 30 years and tens of thousands more deaths did not change the fact that the Moros were too weak to win their independence, but too strong for Manila to crush or ignore. The current leaders are just recognizing that reality.

So two wars down (probably), and how many more to go? No more than a dozen or so of comparable scale, most of them in Africa and the Middle East. And whether they are internal wars like Colombia and the Philippines or wars between local nationalists and foreign occupiers, they tend to end the same way.

There are exceptions, of course, like the Sri Lankan government’s recent victory over the Tamil Tigers, but in most cases the wars get closed down when both sides recognize that a decisive victory is impossible. Or, rather, they get shut down when the participants finally recognize what has already been plain to most outsiders for decades.

The extra time is required because the people directly involved have already paid such a price for that elusive victory that they just cannot bear to admit to themselves that their sacrifices were wasted. Does this have any relevance to the horrors that are now unfolding in Syria? A great deal, I’m sorry to say.

 

Ceasefire in the War on Drugs?

18 November 2011

Ceasefire in the War on Drugs?

By Gwynne Dyer

Like those generals who used to discover that nuclear weapons were not a good thing about twenty minutes after they took off their uniforms and started collecting their pensions, we have had a parade of former presidents who knew that the war on drugs was a bad thing – but only mentioned it after they were already ex-presidents. Now, at last, we have one who is saying it out loud while he is still in office.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, the country that has suffered even more than Mexico from the drug wars, is an honest and serious man. He is also very brave, because any political leader who advocates the legalisation of narcotic drugs will become a prime target of the prohibition industry. He has chosen to do it anyway.

We are basically still thinking within the same framework as we have done for the past forty years,” he told “The Observer” in a recent interview in Bogota. “A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking….If that means legalising [drugs]…then I will welcome it.”

Santos has no intention of becoming a kamikaze politician: “What I won’t do is become the vanguard of that movement [to legalise drugs] because then I will be crucified. But I would gladly participate in those discussions, because we are the country that’s still suffering most…from the high consumption in the US, the UK and Europe in general.”

There are no such discussions, of course. Santos is being disingenuous about this; he is really trying to start a serious international debate on drug legalisation, not to join one. But the time may be ripe for such a debate, because it is now almost universally acknowledged (outside of political circles) that the “war on drugs” has been an extremely bloody failure.

Twenty years ago Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, the most influential economist of the 20th century, and an icon of the right, said: “If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel.” It is only because the government makes the drugs illegal that the criminal cartel has a highly profitable monopoly on meeting the demand.

Milton Friedman also said: “Government never has any right to interfere with an individual for that individual’s own good. The case for prohibiting drugs is exactly as strong and as weak as the case for prohibiting people from over-eating. We all know that over-eating causes more deaths than drugs do.” But there are a quarter-million Americans in jail for possessing or selling drugs. Nobody is in jail for producing, marketing or eating junk food.

Friedman was right, of course, but forty years of the war on drugs have also shown that arguments based on logic, natural justice, or history (the obvious parallel with alcohol prohibition in the US in the 1920s and early 30s) have very little effect on policy in the main drug-importing nations. Many politicians there know that the war on drugs is futile and stupid, but the political cost of leaving the herd and saying so out loud is too high.

The political leaders who are starting to say that it’s time to end the war and legalise the drugs are almost all in the producer nations, where the damage has been far graver than in the drug-importing countries. In practice, therefore, they are almost all Latin American leaders – but even there they have waited until they left office to make their views known.

Former Mexican president Vicente Fox supported the US-led war on drugs when he was in office in 2000-2006, but more recently he has condemned it as an unmitigated disaster. “We should consider legalising the production, sale and distribution of drugs,” he wrote on his blog. “Radical prohibition strategies have never worked.”

“Legalisation does not mean that drugs are good,” Fox added, “but we have to see it as a strategy to weaken and break the economic system that allows cartels to make huge profits, which in turn increases their power and capacity to corrupt.”

Naturally, Fox only said all that when he was no longer president, because otherwise the United States would have punished Mexico severely for stepping out of line. In the same spirit, former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico made a joint public statement that drug prohibition had failed in 2009 – after they had all left office.

But gradually Latin American leaders are losing their fear of Washington. Last year Mexican President Felipe Calderon called for a debate on the legalisation of the drug trade, although he carefully stressed that he himself was against the idea. (Then why did you bring it up, Felipe?) And now President Santos of Colombia has come out, still cautiously, to say that he would consider legalising not only marijuana but cocaine.

The international discussion on legalisation that Santos wants will not start tomorrow, or even next year, but common sense on drugs is finally getting the upper hand over ignorance, fear and dogmatism. And cash-strapped governments will eventually realise how much the balance sheet could be improved by taxing legalised drug consumption rather than wasting hundreds of billions in a futile attempt to reduce consumption.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Milton…high”)

 

The Combative Colombian and the Volatile Venezuelan

31 July 2010

The Combative Colombian and the Volatile Venezuelan

By Gwynne Dyer

On 22 July, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia accused Venezuela of allowing left-wing Colombian rebels to have bases on the Venezuelan side of the 2,000-km. (1,400-mi) border between the two countries. Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, replied immediately by giving all Colombian diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, moving troops to the border, and warning that the US and Colombia are planning to invade Venezuela.

Both men are being thoroughly disingenuous. Venezuela at least turns a blind eye to the dozens of camps that FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) maintains in western Venezuela near the Colombian border, if it does not actively supply and support them. But why did Uribe wait until the last month of his eight years in office to bring this up?

Chavez’s behaviour is equally perverse. He detects an impending attack and puts the Venezuelan armed forces on “maximum alert” at least once a year – last year he even threatened to invade Honduras to reverse an alleged coup there – but normally it’s just bluster that blows away after a few days. This time, he warns that a war with Colombia would bring “a hundred years of tears,” but he really seems willing to risk it.

Uribe’s motive is fairly transparent. His successor, Juan Manuel Santos, elected in May, is also a conservative politician, but he is widely seen as much more open than Uribe to a reconciliation with Venezuela. As Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva put it, “(Santos) has given signals that he wants to build peace. Everything was going well until Uribe made this denunciation.”

Very well, but then why did Hugo Chavez fall for it? He is surrounded by yes men, but surely there must be somebody left in his entourage who would point out to him that Uribe’s last-minute accusations against Venezuela are spoiling tactics intended to undermine Santos’s forthcoming peace initiative. So why didn’t Chavez just maintain a dignified silence and wait until 7 August, when Uribe leaves power and Santos takes over?

Partly because Chavez is constitutionally incapable of maintaining a dignified silence, but also because he is more vulnerable politically at home than ever before. Venezuela is in a mess, and Chavez needs a foreign enemy fast to draw the public’s attention elsewhere.

It’s not all Chavez’s fault. This year has brought Venezuela its worst drought in a hundred years and the huge dam that supplies 73 percent of its electricity has the lowest water level ever, so rolling power cuts black out large parts of the country daily.

The devaluation of the Venezuelan currency last January was ultimately his fault, on the other hand, and that is making even his loyal supporters among the poor really ratty. The Venezuelan army is arresting shopkeepers every day for putting up their prices, but what else are they to do when imported goods cost twice as much in bolivars as they did last year?

That’s why Chavez needs lots of distractions for the public, or maybe one big one that lasts a lot longer than his usual games. In mid-July Venezuelans were encouraged to follow the action on TV in real time as they dug up the great hero of South American independence, Simon Bolivar, in order to test Chavez’s theory that the Liberator had been poisoned 179 years ago, but that sort of thing gets old very fast.

So when Uribe made his accusation about Venezuelan support for FARC, Chavez promptly and deliberately misinterpreted it as a Colombian threat to invade Venezuela and overthrow him (allegedly with US support). The threat of war can keep people in line for years, as the Cold War amply demonstrated. It will serve Chavez’s purposes admirably, so long as it doesn’t slide into a real war.

But it might, because the Colombian-Venezuelan frontier is mostly unmarked, and there are armed bands of guerillas crossing it all the time. The Venezuelan armed forces may also be over-confident and eager to try out their new toys (Chavez has bought them $2 billion worth of Russian arms). But if it came to a real war, Venezuela would lose.

Drive east along a number of major roads in eastern Colombia, and an hour or two before you reach the Venezuelan border the highway suddenly gets ridiculously wide for a kilometre or so. These are emergency airstrips for refuelling and rearming combat aircraft, built many years ago in anticipation of a possible war with Venezuela. There are no comparable preparations on the Venezuelan side.

The Colombian army has been in combat almost continuously against well-armed local insurgents for the past half-century. It is also three times as big as the Venezuelan army, which has no combat experience whatever. And the oilfields around Maracaibo that provide most of Venezuela’s income are very close to the border, whereas all of Colombia’s major cities are far to the west of it.

If I were a Venezuelan general, I would be urging Hugo Chavez to do nothing that risks provoking a war with Colombia. Maybe Venezuelan generals really are saying that to him. But he doesn’t appear to be listening.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“That’s why…fast”; and “Drive…side”)