Talking about peace when there is no peace*

Jim Hodgson, May 23, 2023

Peace is a pre-condition for any possibility of transforming the global economy for the sake of humanity and the Earth – or, more modestly, achieving those elusive Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

In the weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I added my voice to those of others who pleaded for peace talks. In recent weeks, new efforts from church leaders and global South political leaders are underway to bring the sides together. But peace initiatives are either ignored or disdained by most media and “Western” leaders.

Headlines and images from Mexico’s La Jornada and Argentina’s Página 12 newspapers. On the left, Lula asks that a new Cold War between China and the United States be avoided and defends the use for currencies other than the U.S. dollar for international trade. On the right, from top: Zelensky asks for support from G7 powers; G7 leaders create new sanctions against Russia and debated in Hiroshima the nuclear arsenals of other countries; The Vatican makes its peace effort official so as to end the war in Ukraine.

Case in point: the participation at the recent G7 meeting in Hiroshima of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and Indian Prime Minister Narendra ModiFinancial Times dismissed Lula and Modi as Russian President Vladimir “Putin’s apologists.” Their participation was eclipsed by that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who did meet with Modi, but blamed scheduling conflicts for not meeting Lula – and then joked with reporters that Lula was more disappointed than he was. 

Well, yes. Lula’s interest in peace has everything to do with funds diverted to war and away from efforts for authentic development that could help alleviate the other crises of climate change and migration. (Lula also said that Zelensky did not show up for a meeting they had scheduled.)

In Hiroshima,  Lula criticized the division (or re-division) of countries into two antagonistic blocs and abandonment of a multipolar world that seemed to be emerging in the wake of the pre-1991 Cold War.

Meanwhile, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was not even invited. But he and other African leaders are involved in a peace initiative to end the war in Ukraine. In a news conference May 17, he said he had had “separate telephone calls” with Putin and Zelensky over the weekend, where he presented an initiative drawn up by Zambia, Senegal, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Egypt and South Africa. Leaders of the six countries say they plan to travel to Russia and Ukraine “as soon as is possible.”

In his weekly newsletter on May 15, Ramaphosa said South Africa would not be drawn “into a contest between global powers” despite having faced “extraordinary pressure” to do so.

“We do not accept that our non-aligned position favours Russia above other countries. Nor do we accept that it should imperil our relations with other countries,” Ramaphosa said.

During the same week, Chinese envoy Li Hui visited Moscow, his first stop in a European tour that would also take him to Kyiv, to develop a 12-point plan proposed by Beijing on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion. 

Last September, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for establishment of a Commission for Dialogue and Peace that would facilitate the search for a solution through negotiations. 

Nobody has a “magical formula to achieve peace,” writes Juan Pablo DuchLa Jornada’s Moscow correspondent. “But [proponents of peace] hope that Russia and Ukraine would establish a ceasefire and sit down to negotiate their conditions with the objective of putting an end to the bloodshed and devastation. All that is lacking is that Moscow and Kiev by open to making concessions – the first not wanting to cede Ukrainians regions already annexed and the latter refusing to lose territory – but without concessions, it does not seem possible to open a path toward peace in a war that, say what you will, only brings calamities.”

WCC delegation with Ukrainian church leaders in Kyiv on May 11 (WCC photo); Patriarch Kirill with WCC general secretary in Moscow on May 17 (ROC photo).

Meanwhile, the World Council of Church and Pope Francis have both renewed their efforts for peace. 

In mid-May, a delegation led by WCC general secretary Jerry Pillay visited church and government leaders in Kyiv and Moscow. In Kyiv, the WCC delegation met with senior leaders of both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, two churches whose dispute has intensified since the Russian invasion. In Moscow, they met with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and widely viewed as a supporter of President Putin.

For his part, Pope Francis has given Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi the task of leading a mission in hopes it can “ease tensions” in the Ukraine war and lead to a path of peace. The pope has said has said he would go to Kyiv if such a journey would help bring peace, but said that could happen only if he could also visit Moscow.

* The phrase “peace, peace, when there is no peace” is found in Jeremiah 6:14 and later at 8:11. It is also found in Ezekiel 13:10 and 16. The direct criticism is of those who build flimsy walls and smear them with whitewash: a makeshift solution to a problem. The metaphor then and now is points to poor leadership. In our time, we can think of leaders who promise that war will lead to peace. “They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly,” writes the prophet Jeremiah, “saying ‘peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

War Never Again – Westerplatte, Gdansk, Poland (site of the first battle of World War II in 1939).

In Peru, the “battle between rich and poor” continues in wake of parliamentary coup

Indigenous people from Puno region head for the capital city, Lima (La Jornada, Jan. 18); the Government Palace on a quieter day in 2015.

For many years, Peruvians have endured political crises repeatedly. Few presidents have been able to serve full terms and even if they do, they may end up in jail for corruption – the fate of six of the last 10 presidents. 

In the 20th century, elected presidents faced military coups. Today, those have given way to parliamentary coups: impeachment and removal from office. What might be a normal state of tension between executive and legislative branches in Peru today is toxic. There was a week in November 2020 when Peru had three presidents. The last of these presided through the electoral period that saw Pedro Castillo, a teacher from rural Peru, triumph narrowly over Keiko Fujimori, daughter of a former dictator, on June 6, 2020.

More than 40 days after Castillo’s arrest and replacement by his vice-president, Dina Boluarte, about 50 people have been killed in protests and more than 600 injured, including 30 injured just yesterday (Thursday, Jan. 19). 

The protesters demand (with some variations): that Boluarte resign; that new congressional elections be held; that a constituent assembly be chosen to draft a new constitution; new presidential elections before the end of this year; and release of Castillo from prison.

Headlines from Peru on Dec. 7

The fury right now is that Castillo was elected by the rural poor – farmers, workers, Indigenous peoples – and in this latest conflict, they feel their vote is not respected by racist, urban elites. It may be that Castillo erred in trying to suspend congress on Dec. 7, but its summary impeachment (no trial) was at least as illegal. In his defence, Castillo’s move came after 18 months of confrontation: he was never allowed to lead. It’s the system that’s broken.

The outcome is consistent with 520 years of colonialism and keeping those of Indigenous ancestry out of the halls of power. During the election campaign, Castillo had said it was “a battle between the rich and the poor, the struggle between master and slave.” That is what is playing out on the streets and at the roadblocks today.

A fact-finding mission by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) visited Peru in mid-January. Right: in Canada, Amnesty International launched an urgent action campaign to send letters to Peruvian and Canadian authorities.

The Latin American ecumenical news agency ALC Noticias spoke with several Peruvian church leaders.

We have arrived at social collapse, said Rev. Rafael Goto, a Methodist minister in Lima long active in human rights causes. “The crisis in which Peru is living shows us again the discrimination and contempt faced by those who are most impoverished. Once again, it seems that two different ways of looking at society are at play. On one side, that of political power, the historic colonial and oppressive mentalities are revived. On the other side, the excluded population continues to resist so as to break the chain of marginalisation, invisibility, and contempt.”

Rev. Luzmila Quezada, a Wesleyan minister, teacher and leader in the women’s movement, warned that Peru is reaching a point where “dehumanization” is apparent. “This crisis challenges us to connect with the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the Andean South who have suffered for centuries from the exclusion and social stigmatization of a racist and fascist elite that only cares about material goods and forgets the maximum and urgent value of human life: who is our neighbour in this country?”

Meanwhile, a Catholic priest who worked for 26 years in the Puno diocese in southeast Peru (where some of the most extreme repression occurred), has returned to his native Argentina after his bishop ordered him to resign as parish priest in the city of Juliaca. In response to violence in Juliaca on Jan. 9, Fr. Luis Humberto Béjar had demanded Boluarte’s resignation. 

Later, he told reporters that he made the call because he believes that peace can only be achieved with her resignation. “I do not regret saying what I said, and I would say it 50 times more. In three hours, if I am not wrong, they killed 17 people, and one more died of wounds later.” A policeman was also killed in Juliaca that day.

A Quechua Indigenous woman whom I know in the Andean highlands sent a note to say that she and others are doing what they can to support the protests, but that it is difficult knowing that most of the victims of the violence are Quechua. 

“Our leaders are threatened,” she wrote. “There are no lawyers who will defend them. Everyone is afraid because the army and police are acting on behalf of the congress and Dina [Boluarte]. We have returned to the time of [Alberto] Fujimori [dictator in the 90s].”

In Mexico, 43 students missing for eight years: not forgotten and still making headlines

By now, you might not remember the murders and forced disappearances of the “normalistas” – education  students who were training to be rural teachers in the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. 

On the night of Sept. 26, 2014, students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School were attacked in Iguala, Guerrero, after they had commandeered buses to travel to Mexico City for a protest over the Oct. 2, 1968, massacre of student protesters at Tlatelolco plaza in Mexico City.

In Iguala, six people – including three students – were killed in the assault, 25 were injured and 43 students were abducted and presumably murdered later. Leading suspects are members of the Mexican army who worked alongside municipal officials and drug-traffickers who were trying to move opium gum (or semi-processed heroin) on one of the buses that was taken.

As the eighth anniversary approaches, a series of events reveals more about what happened as well as efforts by people tied to the former government of Enrique Peña Nieto to maintain the cover-up. 

Left: La Jornada front page today: protests over judicial decisions, military cover-up. Right: remembering the 43 students in Tepoztlán, Morelos, December 2014.

First the news:

  • On Aug. 18, the report of the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice (appointed by the current government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador) published its report, stating that the students’ disappearance was a “state-sponsored crime.” The report accuses Col. José Rodríguez Pérez, commander of the 27th infantry battalion located in Iguala, of giving the order to murder the missing students. He was arrested on Sept. 15.
  • By pointing to army collusion, the new report denounced the version offered by 2015 by the Peña Nieto administration that the students were killed by a local drug gang after being abducted by municipal cops acting on the orders of Iguala’s corrupt mayor, and that their bodies were incinerated at a dump in the nearby town of Cocula – which is not to say that those officials do not share part of the responsibility for the crimes. Following the report, Peña Nieto’s  attorney-general, Jesús Murillo Karam, was arrested for obstruction in administration of justice in the case. Another official whose arrest has been sought, Tomás Zerón de Lucio,head of Peña Nieto’s Criminal Investigation Agency, left Mexico and is hiding in Israel
  • Among the many stories that emerged from the report is that of one of the students, Julio César López Patolzin, a former soldier now revealed to have been an army spy infiltrated into the school. Even though he was in touch with his supervisors up to the night of the disappearances, the army made no effort to extricate him from among the other students, making him a victim along with the others. 
  • Despite the truth commission report, a judge assigned to the case by the former government has ordered the release of at least 121 police officers and government officials previously charged, including some of the municipal officials and accused drug-traffickers. The district court judge, Samuel Ventura Ramos, is located in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (in northeastern Mexico, close to the U.S. border).
  • Federal prosecutors are now bringing charges against the judge, and President López Obrador demanded Friday (Sept. 23) to know why the cases are not taken up again. “What has that to do with justice? Who chose that judge? And why is the Ayotzinapa case, which has to do with Guerrero, attended to by a judge in Tamaulipas?”

What does all this mean?

When looking at the news these days, it’s important to keep in mind that part of the game plan of globalized capitalism is to show the state as ineffective, whether against the COVID pandemic, inflation, or protecting human rights and public security.

In Mexico, where the present government is attempting to transform the system into one more amenable to the impoverished majority, economic power and some instruments of political and judicial power are still held by old elites. 

Moreover, the system as implemented over the past 30 years has made the students and their cultures redundant, wrote Alejandro Nadal of the Centre for Economic Studies at El Colegio de Mexico. Industrialized agriculture is privileged over traditional small-holder farms. “That is to say, there is no place for campesinofarmers who aspire to a dignified life in freedom. The youth of Ayotzinapa rebelled and the established powers responded,” Nadal wrote in La Jornada.

And, who are those powers? Again we see, as we have repeatedly over the past two decades of a stepped-up “war on drugs,” we see the collusion of a drug cartel (this one is called Guerreros Unidos, or United Warriors) with politicians and other state actors.

“The war on drugs has never controlled drug trafficking and has always been about social control,” wrote Laura Carlsen, director of the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. “Now it’s Mexico’s youth that are paying the price of that duplicity.”

I lived and worked in Mexico from 1994 to 2000. I was based in the city of Cuernavaca, about 90 km south of Mexico City in the state of Morelos and about 50 km north of the border with Guerrero. We frequently visited a Nahua Indigenous community near Taxco, Guerrero. If you take the libre (the two-lane, non-toll highway) towards Acapulco, you pass through Iguala.

During those years, I made several visits to the city of Tlapa in the eastern part of the state. I came to know the Tlachinollan human rights centre and once spent an afternoon near Olinalá talking with a group of rural teachers. Their option for the poor was absolute and inspiring.

The students reflected the context from which they emerged and to which they would have returned as teachers: impoverished and exploited rural Mexico. Their work was heroic.

The latter paragraphs of this text are adapted from a piece I wrote in a previous Unwrapping Development blog format in October 2014, days after the disappearances.