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Foundlings of The FARC?

Conflicting narratives have been emerging regarding the treatment of women and children by the FARC. Both supporters and opponents of the Marxist guerilla movement have been prolific in their praise or condemnation of the movement’s treatment of women and children.

The FARC likes to portray its movement as a healthy crèche of the next wave of Marxist guerillas trained from birth to fight for the people’s revolution.  However, while women in the FARC are supposed to be “fighters as well as mothers,” some have alleged that young mothers have been forced into unwanted abortions in order to preserve their effectiveness as fighters. Male fighters are allowed to fall in love with their female comrades, as long as they continue to perform their duties responsibly.  Through photos, the FARC publicizes the prominent roles that women in children play in the movement.  The FARC aimed to give birth to a “new socialist culture” in the jungle, poised to take the decadent cities.

Nevertheless, women in the FARC have their children stolen away from them to be raised communally, a system that harkens back to Maoist communal childcare. Since Marulanda’s death, there have been increased reports of combatants abandoning their ranks, who complain that cases of rape, boredom and lack of direction in the jungle have led to low morale and defections. Many women get punished, raped and executed, and the romantic idea of female as revolutionary fighters is long gone. If these allegations are true, they raise questions about the long-term sustainability of the FARC, given that a third of the movement’s members are women.

Colombian newspaper El Cambio published an article claiming that the FARC’s new generation of leaders has resorted to kidnapping children as young as young as 8 or 9-years-old to boost the group’s cadre of soldiers.  The daily El Specatador even went so far last January as to call Colombia “The Congo of Latin America,” because of the prevalence of child soldiers employed by The FARC.

If these developments continue, the FARC, already on the wane, will be increasingly marginalized in Colombian society.  The FARC is turning into an example of the insurgent groups that Jeffrey Gettleman described in his Foreign Policy article, groups that morph from national resistance groups into criminal syndicates, movements that prefer hiding in the bush, “where it is far easier to commit crimes.”


Personal reflections on absentee voting in the Iraqi elections

As an Iraqi citizen, I voted here in the United States in both of Iraq’s democratic parliamentary elections.  Below, I have shared my reflections on both voting experiences.

In December 2005, I voted in an Iraqi election for the first time since Saddam Hussein was deposed by the Coalition in 2003.  My family and I had left Iraq well before the election, but the Iraqi authorities set up procedures for Iraqis living in certain countries, including the United States, to vote in the elections.  Rather than send in an absentee ballot through the mail, the procedures for Iraqis living abroad required them to physically go to a local polling place to cast their ballots.

Iraqis living in the Washington, DC area were very excited in the run-up to the 2005 election, because for the first time they would get a chance to have a say in who should run the country without fear of retaliation.  The polling location was in New Carrolton, Maryland, an inconvenient location for people who live in Washington, DC or northern Virginia.  As a result, many local Iraqis tried to organize groups of people to travel together to ensure that as many Iraqis as possible could get to the polls.

I had some mixed feelings about the voting process in the 2005 election.  As we arrived at the polling place, we heard Kurdish music playing and saw some young Kurdish men dancing the Kurdish debka outside the building – I felt at home.  However, I also could not help but notice that they were prominently flying the Kurdistan flag not the Iraqi flag; as an Iraqi, I would have preferred to see the Iraqi flag displayed more prominently to signal that the elections were for all Iraqis, not just the Kurds.  Nonetheless, the music and the smiling faces of the many Iraqis present reassured me.

Once we entered the polling place, it became apparent that the preparation for the election left something to be desired.  There was a general lack of professionalism on the part of those staffing the polling site.  In addition, there was no sort of guide to the candidates and the lists that they represented.  Prior to the elections, the major Iraqi political parties chose to organize themselves into coalitions of parties, which Iraqis refer to as lists, rather than run as individual parties.  My Iraqi friends and I had discussed the different candidates who were running for office, but we were not very familiar with the various lists.

In the end, I was glad that I had a chance to exercise my right to vote, but I could not help but wish that the process had gone more smoothly.

The 2010 election provided me another chance to help choose who would run Iraq, as once again the Iraqi High Electoral Committee (IHEC) allowed for Iraqis living abroad to vote.  This time, a polling location was set up at a hotel near the Ballston Metro stop in Arlington.  Outside the hotel, we saw a van decorated with posters of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and playing Kurdish music.  However, the van prominently displayed a Kurdish flag but not the Iraqi one.

Once we got inside the hotel, the first thing that stood out to me was how long the line of people waiting to vote was.  This was the most Iraqis I had seen together in one place since I left Iraq.

One of the big improvements in this voting experience over the previous one in 2005 was that, despite my misgivings about the Kurdish flag flying on the van outside of the hotel, the polling place had much more of an Iraqi feel to it.  All of those present spoke Iraqi Arabic, even the Kurds and Assyrians.  Though there were no Iraqi flags and no Iraqi music playing within the polling location, which I thought would have been appropriate for such an important national event, there were also no flags, banners, or signs particular to specific ethnicities, sects, or political organizations, like the Kurdish flag, which helped reinforce the feeling that this was an important event for all Iraqis.

This voting process was much better organized than that of the 2005 election.  There were five observers present in the room and there were about ten other observers scattered throughout the polling location. One IHEC member checked the voters’ IDs, as voters were required to have Iraqi identification documents to prove that they were Iraqi nationals and therefore eligible to vote.

The another IHEC member later handed each voter a poster-size ballot paper stamped on the back and a thick, nicely-printed booklet with the names of all the candidates, organized by province and by list.  This was a major improvement over the 2005 election, which had no guide to the candidates and the lists.

After ticking the list and the number of the candidate, I folded the paper again, placed in it in the small envelop then the larger one, and came out of the booth. To my surprise, one of the members of the IHEC who was overseeing the voters at the three booths said that I should not have done that: “The observer and the IHEC member at the ballot box has to check your paper to see if it is the one stamped or not.” Fear of forgery. The IHEC member brought me two fresh envelopes and I checked that they had my original ordinal voting number and Baghdad as my hometown, then showed it to the observer, who made me dip my index finger in a small jar of purple ink, then she folded the envelopes and, with the help of the IHEC member, pushed it down the ballot box. My voter number was 625 and the big ballot box was full to the brim when they pushed my ballot inside.

Going to vote, I had been worried about my negative voting experience in 2005, but when I left with my purple fingertip, I felt very proud of the huge strides Iraqis have taken in the last 5 years.


Twitter and Goliath

Hugo Chavez just can’t not pick a fight. Not content to push around Venezuela’s mobile phone companies and TV networks into toeing his Bolivarian line, he has decided to strike out at an enemy that even China has failed to censor: the Internet in general and Twitter in particular.  It looks like we are on the verge of seeing a Twitter resistance develop against Chavez, similar to the Green Movement that emerged in the wake of election fraud in Iran last year.

George Orwell wouldn’t have a tough time seeing Big Brother’s influence in Chavez’s Venezuela. Last year, Chavez took a page from 1984 and decreed that anyone who twitters is a traitor guilty of “Media Crimes.” Nevertheless, unlike RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest and largest TV station which Chavez pulled the plug on last month, Twitter doesn’t have physical offices that can be closed down.  While Chavez has threatened to block Twitter by forcing everyone to get their Internet through state-owned ISPs, he has yet to do so.  Even still, there are always backdoors that twitterers and bloggers can exploit to get their messages out; just look at how quickly the Iranian protesters found a workaround last year after the Iranian authorities blocked their ISPs.

What makes Twitter such a threat to repressive regimes? There have been conflicting reports over Twitter’s actual effectiveness in Iran, but Twitter’s non-corporality is really what frightens enemies of free speech – Twitter makes it harder to identify your enemies. The authorities would have to confiscate every PDA, smartphone, and laptop to see who is tweeting or blogging and what they are writing about. In the minds of the repressive state, enemies are everywhere and anywhere.

However, Venezuela’s social media users have been anything but intimidated. Facebook’s anti-Chavez group, “Chavez esta PONCHAO!” (Chavez you’ve struck out!), has more than 233,000 fans. Several Twitter hash tags have also popped up: #Venezuela, #Estudiantes, #FreeVenezuela, #FreeMediaVE.  Hugo has decided to combat the growing citizen’s army of bloggers and twitterers by employing his own bloggers and twitterers. According to Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda, Chavez has assembled an “internet army” of online fifth columnists.

How the Latin American Twitter resistance to Chavez develops remains to be seen, but it is certainly worth monitoring. Considering that the regimes in Bolivia and Ecuador echo many of Chavez’ excesses against freedom of speech, it is possible that citizens in those countries will start mirroring the Venezuelan opposition’s online resistance.


Could ignoring Iraqi refugees pose a threat to national security?

This past Thursday, Strategic Social attended a conference on Iraq sponsored by the Jamestown Foundation and held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  The conference’s last panel, titled “Future Challenges to Iraqi Stability,” included a presentation by Council on Foreign Relations fellow Rachel Schneller on “The Impact of Demographics on the Future of Iraq’s Stability.”

Typically, the Iraqi IDP/refugee issues discussed by Schneller are not couched in security terms. Rather, IDP/refugee issues are largely seen – and dealt with in practical terms – under the umbrella of international aid and assistance.  She noted out that the large numbers of Iraqi refugees live in volatile neighboring countries that are unable to effectively handle the influx of people and do not grant the Iraqis any legal status.  Schneller stressed that this untenable situation poses a potential security threat, as the refugees’ situation them “ripe for recruitment” for insurgencies.

Whether or not this situation actually increases radicalization, the refugee problem caused by the war in Iraq will inevitably hold long-term consequences for Iraq and the region.  Perhaps because the refugee crisis has not expanded beyond the personal realm of individual suffering, this issue has not been widely discussed or examined in the context of U.S. national security strategy.

Unfortunately, Ms. Schneller did not explore what a shift to a more security-centric approach to dealing with refugee issues would entail. Is the Department of Defense better equipped to handle refugee matters than the Department of State? Could DoD provide more money than the Department of State has to notoriously underfunded refugee-related programs? Could the American public be more easily sold on increasing resettlement quotas if the situation were framed in terms of security?

Certainly, the human displacement caused by the war will not be solved on its own and definitely not without considerable attention, money, and thoughtful effort.  However, perhaps these refugee issues would receive the resources and attention that they require if they were brought under the auspices of the Department of Defense.


Iraqi Campaign Posters

As many of you know, the parliamentary elections in Iraq are underway.  Take a look at some of the election posters currently plastering the streets of Baghdad; just a small sampling of the 6000 candidates vying for 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament.  Pay particular attention to the iconography on the posters; which is significantly less subtle than the images used in today’s American political campaigns.  As always, we welcome any comments.

Poster #1

United Iraqi Coalition

List #348 Sequence 2

“Your future is in our hands”

Dr. Mahmoud Mashadani (Former Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament)

Moderation, Clarity, Honesty, Courage
poster #2

The Iraqi Party for the Victory of Independent Disadvantaged People

We will compromise on the salary of the parliament…

List #313

Mohammed Shirhan al-Rubaie

number 3

COA-Iraqi Unity-LITION

List #348

Our god is one
Iraq is one
Our destiny is one

Dr. Sabad Abd al-Rasul al-Tamimi
Professor of International Economics at the College of Political Science
at al-Nahrain University.
number 4

I see with your eyes
And speak with your voice
List 333/133

number 5

List 333
For the courageous

(The picture is of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya list)

number 6

Your independence is our project
Vote for change
Iraqi National Coalition List #316

(The picture is of Iraqi National Coalition List candidate Hussein
al-Mahrabbi al-Tammimi)

number 7

Iraqi National Coalition List #316
Elect Independent Candidate Hana Hana Ibrahim Al-Khafaji Sequence 121
Build  our country by the strengthening the economy

number 8

We will make them accountable… and with your voice (vote) we will
prosecute them.

Iraqi National Coalition, Sheikh Sabah As-Sadi (Chair of theIraqi Paliament’s Integrity (Anti-Corruption) Committee)

number 9

Ibrahim Al-Ja’fri (Former Iraqi Prime Minister)
Our Task of Reconciliation
Iraqi National Coalition List # 316

Our translators were unsure about the significance of the clock; they thought that maybe it was to remind people what time the polls open on election day.