March 03, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

A Disarmament, A Peace

After more than 50 years of war, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began turning in their weapons this week.

Overseen by the United Nations, the disarmament was welcome news in a world driven by violence and seemingly intractable political questions.

“I’m abandoning my rifle for a broom,” guerrilla Maritza Gonzalez told Agence France-Presse at the group’s camp in northern Colombia. “Let’s hope this leads to peace.”

The 51-year-old fighter joined FARC when she was 14.

FARC began as a Marxist-Leninist peasant uprising but it morphed over time into a criminal enterprise that fought both the government and the rightwing death squads that formed to combat it. Eventually, the group became involved in the Colombian drug trade to raise money for its operations.

Around 260,000 perished, more than 60,000 people are still missing and 6.9 million were displaced in FARC’s conflicts.

Last year, after four years of negotiations, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reached a deal to end the fighting. In yet another example of citizens rejecting mainstream politics, voters rejected the peace deal. But Santos said he would uphold a ceasefire between the army and FARC and continue the peace process anyway. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Meanwhile, the deal – and its implementation – are far from perfect.

The Christian Science Monitor revealed that very little training and other services to prepare the fighters for civilian life are occurring in the camps where FARC rebels are supposed to demobilize. In the village of Carrizal, the government never built a camp as promised. Three hundred FARC rebels who arrived to disarm found an empty muddy field.

The Washington Post warned that the peace deal remained “a fragile newborn whose survival is no sure thing.”

The Post reported that officials confiscated $98 million worth of assets held by FARC rebels who didn’t want to give up their arms, a reminder of how the rebels’ illicit activities were a nice way to earn a living in an otherwise poor country.

Santos is scurrying to make sure criminal groups don’t take over those activities now that the FARC rebels are supposed to be abandoning them.

The criminals appear to be a step ahead, however.

On Thursday, the International Narcotics Control Board released its annual report saying that coca production in Colombia had increased 39 percent from 2014 to 2015.

Farmers might have stepped up production because of the FARC deal, which included government programs to help – or pay – farmers to grow something other than coca, the main ingredient in cocaine.

More coca is just one unintended consequence of the wobbly peace deal. FARC rebels and Santos will need saintly patience and restraint to handle the many others that are likely in store for their country in the coming months.

But most believe, peace is worth it.

WANT TO KNOW

China: Offensive, Both Ways

China has launched a “people’s war on terror” in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where ethnic Uighur separatists have allegedly turned to terrorism to push their case for independence.

But the all-out offensive – which included a mass “anti-terror rally” by as many as 10,000 policemen – risks alienating Uighurs who might otherwise have little interest in opposing the government, the BBC reported.

“We are reliving the Cultural Revolution,” a Uighur living in Kashgar told the news channel.

The show of force ostensibly comes in response to an attack by a knife-wielding assailant, who killed five people on Feb. 14, after which a Xinjiang Communist official urged the party apparatus to “bury the corpses of terrorists in the vast sea of a people’s war.”

But there has been no significant terrorist attack in China since 2014, apart from sporadic, small-scale incidents, suggesting Beijing is “using a hammer to crack a nut,” notes the BBC.

Playing for Time

Brazil’s President Michel Temer expects a federal judge to recommend his removal from office due to illegal campaign financing, but aims to stall the process long enough to complete his term and press ahead with the fiscal reforms and austerity policies he has initiated.

The jailed former CEO of Brazil’s largest engineering firm testified Wednesday that his company made illegal donations to Temer’s 2014 election campaign, when he was running as vice president to Dilma Rousseff, Reuters reported.

Temer stepped in as Rousseff’s replacement when she was impeached last year for manipulating the country’s accounts.

Assuming Judge Herman Benjamin recommends that his candidacy be annulled, his decision would then have to be confirmed by the electoral court. Then Congress would pick a new interim president to lead Brazil to elections in October 2018.

Temer, who has said he won’t run for another term, is gambling that he can extend the appeals process beyond that date. But that might not be possible if the ongoing recession continues and the allegations paralyze his government.

Of Walls and Bridges

Amid all the talk of walls, Mexico’s economy minister will visit Detroit Friday to try to build some bridges.

Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo will meet executives from Ford and General Motors, as well as auto parts makers that have operations in Detroit and Mexico, Reuters reported. Top on the agenda: US-Mexico trade and the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

US President Donald Trump has vowed to scrap the 1994 trade accord if he can’t wrangle better terms for the US, as well as to finance a proposed border wall with higher tariffs for goods made in Mexico. But Mexico is keen to point out that free trade has generated benefits for the US auto industry, with the foreign ministry noting Tuesday that Mexico was Michigan’s second biggest trade partner with more than $12 billion in exports to Mexico last year.

As NPR pointed out in January, Mexico’s own free trade agreements are a key reason it’s important to US carmakers. With more free trade agreements around the world than any other country than Israel, Mexico allows US companies who build cars there to compete effectively across Latin America.

DISCOVERIES

Not So Clean Monday

New Orleans celebrates the end of the carnival season with Mardi Gras. Germans do Fasching. And in the Greek coastal fishing town of Galaxidi, villagers from far and wide gathered to mark the beginning of Greek Orthodox Lent in an event called the Flour War.

It’s an annual tradition – also known as “Clean Monday” – that sees Greeks from across the country stage a street battle with hundreds of bags of colored flour used as bombs.

Combatants in the Flour War parade and try to douse each other with as much flour as possible, while villagers cover their homes in plastic, wrote Reuters.

The tradition supposedly harkens back to 1801, when Galaxidi residents defied Ottoman rulers by celebrating the then-forbidden carnival and painting their faces with ash.

Now, Greeks say the Flour War is a welcome distraction from other woes.

“It’s an outburst,” one participant told Reuters. “If you are feeling downcast in Athens, the villages, anywhere with this (economic) crisis, you come here and let off steam.”

Check out some pictures of the Flour War here.

Threats to Press Freedom around the World.

The following selection is part of a new, regular feature on press freedoms brought to you in conjunction with the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Of Media Lock-Outs and Police Raids

The White House stirred things up again last week when CNN, the New York Times, Politico, the Hill, the BBC, the Daily Mail, Buzzfeed, the Los Angeles Times, and New York Daily News were barred from an informal briefing known as “a gaggle” by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. This was the latest blow to U.S. President Donald Trump’s relationship with the media – earlier in February, Trump declared select media outlets as the “enemy of the American people.”

Meanwhile, in Russia, where the government has a history of using security forces to try to intimidate journalists and other critics, officials opted not to kick the media out, but to invite themselves in. On Feb. 28, Russian security officials appeared at journalist and human rights defender Zoya Svetova’s Moscow apartment and searched the dwelling for hours, copying data from all electronic devices in the home, including her iPad, her husband’s mobile phone, and her family’s computers. Their search warrant authorized them to look for records of wire transfers into Russia of money allegedly embezzled by exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky. After hours of searching, security forces had found no such documents, Svetova’s lawyer said.