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A Papal Push in Colombia

The Vatican played a quiet but decisive role in jump-starting the ongoing normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, and negotiators for the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as FARC, clearly took note. Perhaps concerned about the possibility of a breakdown in their own peace talks, negotiators for the rebel group suggested that the pope meet with FARC officials during his visit to Cuba in September.

There have been positive developments in the long peace negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government, which began in Havana in 2012. FARC officials recently extended indefinitely a unilateral ceasefire, and Colombia’s Conflict Analysis Resource Center reports that the intensity of the civil war has dropped to its lowest level in more than 40 years. But it would be a mistake to believe that a successful conclusion to the negotiations is guaranteed.

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Archbishop Luis Castro Quiroga of Colombia told local media that he was hopeful a “small meeting” with the pope in support of the peace process might be arranged. Vatican officials, however, dismissed the possibility. According to Archbishop Castro, Pope Francis has proposed that an observer from the Holy See attend the Havana negotiations. This would be a good initial step, but a more personal gesture may be warranted as negotiations enter this critical stage. While other crises have driven it from the headlines, Colombia’s civil war continues to be devastating. As the conflict enters its fifth decade, somewhere in the vicinity of 250,000 people—80 percent of them civilians—have died and five million have been driven from their homes. It would be a historic tragedy if negotiations falter now so close to a comprehensive conclusion.

New Face of Heroin Abuse

On Aug. 17, a 26-year-old mother was found unconscious, her daughter strapped in a stroller beside her, in a Walgreens bathroom stall. The Washington Post reports she was one of the 25 people to overdose on heroin in just two days in the Rust Belt community of Washington, Pa. First responders were able to revive her with a fast-acting antidote, but three others that weekend were not so lucky.

This is the new face of the heroin epidemic, which in 2013 took more than 8,200 lives. Though historically associated disproportionately with poor and black inner-city teenagers, today the average heroin user is a white, middle-class suburbanite in his or her mid-20s who moved to the drug after getting hooked on prescription painkillers. The Obama administration responded in late August with a $5 million effort to combat the trafficking and use of heroin. Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy, says the plan focuses on overdose prevention and access to recovery support services and will enhance coordination between public health and law enforcement officials in five high-intensity drug trafficking areas, ranging from Maine to Tennessee.

This initiative is a wise one but, given the need, under-funded. Notably absent, fortunately, are the “tough on crime” rhetoric and policies that characterized this country’s response to previous drug waves—heroin in the 1960s, crack cocaine in the ’70s and ’80s. Is today’s softer touch a reflection of lessons learned from the failed war on drugs—or of the race and class of those affected? Whatever the answer, which is probably a combination of the two, we now know that the lives and communities destroyed by addiction need more recovery beds, not jail cells.

Russia at the Border

Before attending a NATO summit in Wales in early September 2014, President Obama first visited Estonia. This was a clear statement to neighboring Russia that the United States was committed to Estonia and the other NATO states bordering Russia: What was happening in Ukraine must not happen here. Days later, Eston Kohver, an officer in Estonia’s security service, was captured by Russian officers in a remote border area and charged with espionage, trafficking in weapons and illegally crossing the border.

Estonia “investigated the scene” and reported that the evidence clearly showed Kohver had been in Estonian territory. His arrest was seen at least partly as a Russian response to President Obama’s visit and to NATO. About a quarter of Estonia’s population is of Russian descent, so it has particularly good reason to keep an eye on its eastern neighbor. It was the Russian population inside Ukraine that gave Moscow a pretext to occupy and annex parts of Ukraine.

On Aug. 19, 2015, a Russian court sentenced Kohver to 15 years in prison. Four days later Andrzej Duda, in his first foreign trip as president of Poland, which also has a border with Russia, visited Estonia. He and the president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, discussed the relationship between their countries. They share economic issues and, of course, security concerns. Both countries have called on NATO for permanent military bases on their eastern borders. Estonia has also announced plans to build a fence along the land border. It will have barbed wire and cameras to help prevent incidents like the abduction of Eston Kohver. But it would not stop a Russian tank.

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