Colombia: Preserving Failure


July 18, 2016: The recently signed peace deal with the FARC rebels is not final until a national referendum approves it. In addition FARC has to handle internal disagreements over the deal. Opinion polls indicate that a majority (over 60 percent) of voters approve of the deal. The date of the vote has not been set yet because the courts are sorting out the referendum conditions. The vote is expected before the end of the year.

Meanwhile FARC announced that it was ready to cope with growing internal opposition to the peace deal. So far only one FARC unit (the Armando Rios First Front with about 200 armed members) has made public its opposition. FARC is about 5,000 armed members, most of them belonging to dozens of these “Fronts”. Think of each front as a branch office of FARC, which controls the fronts via a chain of command several levels deep and access to far greater financial and armed resources than any front or collection of fronts. By the terms of the agreement FARC must eliminate armed internal opposition to the terms of the peace deal. The dissenters are believed driven more by greed than ideology because opposition to the peace deal is most common in factions that are heavily involved in the drug trade. FARC says it stopped recruiting and collecting “taxes” back in May but cutting ties with the drug gangs will come at the end of the demobilization process. The taxes are extortion, usually from local businesses or town and village leaders. The taxes and recruiting (especially teenagers, often by force) was very unpopular with the civilians FARC said it was serving.

Most Colombians are aware that their booming economy is largely the result of over a decade of continuing declines in crime rates. Thus the army has announced its plans to concentrate on crime once the leftist rebels have demobilized. For those leftist rebels to continue fighting (ELN and parts of FARC) the army will concentrate on them. Many of the major criminal gangs, especially those who concentrate on drugs, are not happy about this. The military has been very successful against FARC and ELN and with fewer rebels to deal with the gangs are bracing for the worst. Some troops (about 10,000) will be reorganized and trained for mine clearing to rid the large rural areas of mines and bombs planted by the drug gangs and leftist rebels over the years.

Colombia is now the most robust economy in South America while next door in Venezuela there is plenty of bad news and that does not seem likely to change anytime soon. Venezuela has the worse economy in the region, the highest crime rates in the world and faces the very real threat of civil war and widespread chaos. This will be a problem for Colombia because millions of refugees are likely to head across the border to Colombia.

Next Door The Army Is In Charge

In Venezuela the problems are numerous and include a collapsing economy and rulers who threaten massive use of armed forces if their power is seriously threatened (legally or otherwise). The latest ploy is the government putting the army in charge of the food supply (farms, processing, imports, transportation and distribution). The state controlled media covers this new policy (in place since July 12) with lots of impressive visuals but the food shortages continue and get worse. The army is unlikely to fix this because corruption in the military has played a major role in stealing government controlled food and selling it to the black market. The government cannot crack down too much on that because the loyalty of the security forces is essential. The government becomes more and more unpopular the longer the shortages last and that makes troop loyalty even more critical and the troops know it. This miserable situation may go on for a while because this sort of thing is nothing new and has occurred before, especially in South America. Cuba is the worst case. The socialist dictatorship there got by for decades because it was subsidized by the Soviet Union. But after 1991 the subsidies and the Soviet Union were no more and ever since the Cuban police state has scrambled to improvise. For about a decade they had another wealthy patron (Venezuela) but that help is gone and Cuba is again enduring hard times. The pain in Venezuela could go on for months or years. Venezuela is not an island and most Venezuelans know what is really going on in Cuba so Venezuela will not likely follow the Cuban example.

Unlike Colombia, after World War II Venezuela prospered and was at peace mainly because of massive oil income. But now shortages of essentials (food, medicine fuel and electricity) in Venezuela are widespread and getting worse. Current ruler Nicolás Maduro and his patron and predecessor Hugo Chavez deliberately diverted cash for maintaining and upgrading infrastructure (like power plants and oil production facilities) to support their program of free stuff for political allies at home and abroad. A lot of foreign loans were taken out as well. All that is now coming due and no one will sell Venezuela food on credit. It’s cash up front or nothing.

Inflation is running at 700 percent a year and that is expected to more than double by the end of 2016 if nothing changes. While the unemployment rate is only about 20 percent, most people do not have enough money for food. A growing number of people with government jobs quit because there are better opportunities in the free economy (legal or otherwise). The socialist government tries to control prices and that means little food is available at the lower legal prices. People must wait in line twelve hours or more to buy a few days’ supply of basic food items. There is more food on the black market, but the prices are more than over 80 percent of the population can afford. There are lower (than black market) prices in neighboring countries but the government has closed most border crossings to try and stop the smuggling.

The shortages have led to growing anger towards the leftist government and the resolutely socialist president Maduro. As a result the crime rate, already the highest in the Americas, has gotten worse because the security forces have been ordered to concentrate on protecting the government from the people. This is particularly true when it comes to food supplies. Criminal gangs are increasingly active in trying to steal available food for resale on the black market. Meanwhile mobs of hungry, and angry, people are more frequently showing up near where food is stored or distributed and while police are under orders to avoid lethal force, the number of deaths are increasing. Polls show over 70 percent say Maduro should quit before the end of 2016. Many of the socialist true-believers are losing patience and a growing number are quietly urging the military (now run my “good socialists”) to do the country and themselves a favor by stepping in and removing Maduro and his unpopular (mainly for being inept and corrupt) government from power. That offer is apparently still being considered in part because opposition politicians are discreetly giving the same advice.

The newly elected (in late 2015) opposition Congress wants to remove president Maduro legally. The favored, and very popular effort, employs a legal (it’s in the constitution) recall referendum that would remove Maduro and allow new elections by the end of the year. Despite the obvious popularity of such a referendum the government seems intent on preventing the recall vote anyway it can. Maduro’s current term does not end until 2019 and Maduro wants until then to make things all better. Government incompetence and corruption are the main causes of all the economic woes but the government will not even discuss, much less admit their actions are a problem to be solved.

The current mess is not the work of Maduro but of his predecessor. In 1999 Venezuelans elected a former army officer (Hugo Chavez) who proposed to solve all existing economic and social problems via radical socialism. This did not work. Chavez died in early 2013 and was succeeded by vice president Nicolás Maduro, a lifelong socialist and former union official who was an early supporter of Chavez. Maduro rigged the 2014 presidential vote to get himself elected and then made it clear he was determined to exploit the Chavez “legend” and do whatever else it took to remain in power. Maduro is as clueless as Chavez about how an economy works and was determined to continue the Chavez policies that have killed economic growth and the prosperity Venezuela had long enjoyed. Maduro does understand power and in an effort to maintain control of an increasingly hostile population Maduro turned to police state methods. He now openly threatens armed retribution against any efforts to remove him from power. So far the opposition controlled Congress has been blocked from removing Maduro legally by Supreme Court rulings that these actions are unconstitutional. This comes as no surprise because in 2015 Maduro realized he could lose control of the legislature and just before the elections that did just that ordered the outgoing (and leftist controlled) Congress to appoint enough additional leftist Supreme Court judges to enable the government to block an opposition majority in Congress from doing anything legally to remove Maduro from power. So far the new leftist Supreme Court has performed as expected and even granted Maduro the power to rule by decree (without any involvement by the legislature) in order to deal with the economic crisis. Now the opposition legislature must either find legal ways to deal with an outlaw president and Supreme Court or see the country slide into anarchy. Some in the opposition believe that a majority of justices can be persuaded to do the right thing. Less optimistic opposition leaders are trying to convince leftist generals to solve the crises by illegal (but very popular to a majority of Venezuelans) means.

Meanwhile Maduro’s political subordinates and allies are upset. These supporters grew rich from stealing and dealing since 1999. It’s widely known that the family of the late president Chavez became fabulously wealthy (over $4 billion). There are many ways for people with the right connections to get rich. Bribes from drug gangs keep the cocaine flowing through Venezuelan ports and air fields plus simply stealing much of the money under your control. Maduro has been trying to build a popular militia loyal to him and the ruling party, but the country is running out of money to pay for enough loyalty. A lot of these corrupt, but now wealthy, officials are fleeing the country and hoping they can find sanctuary (from eventual prosecution) somewhere.

Efforts to get help from abroad have been largely unsuccessful. The problem is the notorious corruption in Venezuela. Sending in food aid risks seeing most of it stolen by government officials and sold off to the black market or smuggled to neighboring countries. OAS (Organization of American States) officials admit that the Venezuelan government has misbehaved to the extent that it should be expelled from the OAS. But enough of the 34 members of OAS still hold out hope that the Maduro government will find a solution that action on expulsion has been halted, for now. This “wait and hope” group largely consists of countries headed down the same socialist path as Venezuela and really would like to see a solution that works. These OAS supporters are themselves too broke to help Venezuela so they do what they can to “protect” the reputation of the Venezuelan leadership.

July 17, 2016: For the second weekend in a row Venezuela has briefly opened its borders with Colombia and now people are travelling from all over Venezuela to get into Colombia to buy food and medicine, or simply to escape Venezuela. Over 100,000 crossed this time and the number is expected to increase if Venezuela continues to open the gates on weekends. The border was closed in 2015 by Venezuela in an effort to halt smuggling of cheap Venezuelan goods into Colombia where the market price was much higher than what the Venezuelan government insisted items be sold for in Venezuela. Closing the borders didn’t stop the smuggling but made it much more difficult for ordinary Venezuelans to go to Colombia to shop. The growing shortages of food and other essentials in Venezuela have made access to Colombia a matter of life or death for a growing number of Venezuelans. The state controlled media in Venezuela tries to spin the border traffic as misled Venezuelans who return empty handed because of high prices in Colombia. While the prices in Colombia are higher than the state controlled prices in Venezuela, the Colombia prices are lower than the black market in Venezuela. The price controlled goods are rarely available while the black market almost always has what you need. Venezuela was forced to open the border crossings because hundreds of hungry mothers were staging demonstrations and trying to cross illegally to obtain food. Opening the borders was seen as less of a problem than trying to use force against the hungry mothers. While Venezuelan police could prevent pictures or video from being taken on their side of the border, that could not be done on the Colombian side. Thus any violence against the hungry protestors would eventually get into Venezuela.

July 15, 2016: In Venezuela oil production hit a 13 year low; 2.18 million barrels per day. The lower prices are not something the government can control but the shrinking production is self-inflicted, the result of over a decade of corruption and mismanagement in the state owned oil industry. There is no quick fix for this and daily production will keep shrinking until the government (or a new government) enacts reforms and hires competent and incorruptible staff for the oil industry.

July 8, 2016: In central Colombia (La Uribe) a group of FARC rebels fired on an army patrol. FARC investigated and apologized because the army had been given incorrect location information about where armed FARC groups were.

July 4, 2016: In the northeast (Boyacá) ELN used a bomb to rupture an oil pipeline. This is the 17th such ELN pipeline attack this year. This one was followed by a clash between ELN and soldiers which left six soldiers and an undetermined number of leftist rebels dead. ELN is exploring the possibility to negotiating a peace deal similar to what FARC got but is waiting to see how the FARC agreement works out.




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