Peace Breaks Out in the Western Hemisphere

I’d like to propose an update to an old saying: “Bad news travels halfway around the world while good news is putting on its shoes.” That is what I thought when I read this story from Steven Pinker and Juan Manuel Santos:

The peace treaty announced this week between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, marks more than the end of one war. It is a milestone for peace in the Americas and the world.

The 52-year war between the Colombian state and the FARC is the oldest and only armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere, and the last one held over from the Cold War. From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, war — in the classic sense of a violent conflict over governance or territory fought by at least one national army — has disappeared. Although drug-related gang violence in Latin America continues, the extinguishing of political armed conflicts from an entire hemisphere deserves note…

Today, there are no military governments in the Americas. No countries are fighting one another. And no governments are battling major insurgencies…

Far from being a “world at war,” as many people believe, we inhabit a world where five out of six people live in regions largely or entirely free of armed conflict.

There are several reasons why this kind of good news gets lost in the shuffle. One is – of course – that we are in the midst of a presidential election here in the U.S. Nothing much is getting noticed other than reporting and analysis of the two campaigns.

Beyond that, somewhere in the 1990’s we stopped paying much attention to Latin America. That sure wasn’t true in the 1970’s and 1980’s. If you were politically active at all during those years your attention was focused on the way this country was playing out the Cold War in this hemisphere.  Here is how Pinker and Santos summarize that:

One has only to look back a few decades to see how momentous a change this is. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru, as in Colombia, leftist armed forces battled American-backed governments, with deaths mounting into the hundreds of thousands. In Nicaragua, the conflict was the other way around: American-backed rebels fought to overthrow a leftist government. The United States and the Soviet Union poured in support that kept such wars raging. The “dirty war” in Argentina also flowed from a clash of left and right, in which tens of thousands were killed.

In that era, wars between countries also occurred regularly. During the 1980s, the United States invaded Panama and Grenada to overthrow their governments. In 1982, Britain and Argentina fought a war over the Falkland Islands. Ecuador and Peru skirmished along their contested border, and a simmering dispute between El Salvador and Honduras burst into war in 1969 after the two countries faced off in a series of bitterly contested soccer matches.

The region was also militarized by frequent coups and juntas [most of them were covertly supported by the U.S.]. In 1981, countries run by authoritarian or military governments included Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Suriname, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina.

As this country turned its focus towards the Middle East in the 1990’s, countries to the south of our border became engaged in what we might call “a Latin American Spring.” Democracy broke out all over the region. The outcomes continue to develop, but they have certainly unfolded much more positively than they did in countries like Egypt, Libya and Syria.

Third comes the remake of that old saying about how bad news travels. It’s clear why Republicans don’t want news like this to break through – they’ve invested all of their chips in terrifying voters about how “the world is on fire.” But what about liberals? Sure…there’s all the caveats about gangs, government corruption and troubles in Venezuela. But if we are truly invested in democracy and peace, this is a pretty BFD, right?

This is precisely why President Obama took the bold move of opening this country’s relationship with Cuba – a move that signaled an end to the Cold War for people all over Latin America. When talking to Jeffrey Goldberg, he went on to suggest that – to the extent that our obsession with the Middle East crowds out other global concerns – that is a problem.

“Right now, I don’t think that anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East,” he said. “You have countries that are failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people. You’ve got a violent, extremist ideology, or ideologies, that are turbocharged through social media. You’ve got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organizing principles are sectarian.”

He went on, “Contrast that with Southeast Asia, which still has huge problems—enormous poverty, corruption—but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast is pretty stark.”

In Asia, as well as in Latin America and Africa, Obama says, he sees young people yearning for self-improvement, modernity, education, and material wealth…

He then made an observation that I came to realize was representative of his bleakest, most visceral understanding of the Middle East today—not the sort of understanding that a White House still oriented around themes of hope and change might choose to advertise. “If we’re not talking to them,” he said, referring to young Asians and Africans and Latin Americans, “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”

So when peace breaks out in the Western Hemisphere, we should probably take a moment to notice, don’t you think?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.