Colombia: A Disease With Staying Power


March 17, 2013: In Venezuela the leftist government is determined to survive the March 5th death of founder Hugo Chavez, by being even less circumspect in breaking laws to stay in power. Chavez always tried to stay within the law sufficiently to avoid a lot of international criticism but his successors appear rather more desperate. Inside Venezuela opponents were pressured by Chavez (with economic loss and imprisonment) to go along or remain silent. Chavez made it easy for dissidents to just leave the country. Despite all that, there is still a popular opposition and it is getting stronger as the socio-economic situation (rising unemployment, inflation, corruption, and crime) grows worse.  

Chavez used a lot of Cuban military, economic, and political advisers to create his socialist state, and Chavez followers could just declare the establishment of a dictatorship and try the police state tactics that have kept the Cuban dictatorship in power for over fifty years. Then again, maybe not, because Venezuela is not an island and rebels would have sanctuaries handy. Then there is the fact that most Venezuelans know how the Cuban revolution turned out and that is not something most Venezuelans aspire to. But dictatorship is what Venezuela is headed for if the Chavez followers want to hang on to power and, for the ruling socialist elite, prosperity. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela has oil but less and less of it. Mismanagement and corruption during a decade of Chavez rule has crippled Venezuelan oil production. There’s still a lot of money coming in each month and that can buy a lot of support. Continued leftist control of the economy is not likely to halt the decline in oil sales. Then there’s the problem that Venezuela produces “dirty” oil that is more expensive to refine into usable products. That makes it harder to sell at a good price in a market with declining (because of all that new fracked gas and oil) prices. For the successors of Chavez oil is becoming a curse because to their followers, the oil is more an illusion than salvation.

Meanwhile, back in Colombia the government has to wait and see how things shake out in post-Chavez Venezuela. For the moment Colombia has to continue dealing with Venezuela providing sanctuary to FARC and some drug gangs.

March 14, 2013: FARC blew up part of a railroad essential for getting a lot of the coal to ports where it is exported. FARC is seeking to get paid to ensure that this does not happen again. FARC is constantly trying to extort money from businesses in return for not attacking. This is known as the “protection racket.” The government has made it illegal for victims to pay and sends special counter-terror battalions after FARC units that attempt this extortion. Often the special army battalions succeed in wiping out the FARC units, but the potential payoff is so high (as some companies will break the law and pay) that other FARC factions later have a go at it.

March 13, 2013: In Mexico intelligence officials had a hard time believing rumors that the Mexican Sinola drug cartel had closed a deal to buy some of the drug production and smuggling operations in Colombia belonging to leftist rebel group FARC. Mexican drug cartels have grown rich buying cocaine from Colombian cartels (and FARC) that produce and export cocaine. But FARC is involved in peace negotiations with the Colombian government and part of that deal (which includes an amnesty and turning FARC into a legit political party) involves FARC getting out of the drug business. FARC is composed of dozens of smaller units, some led by men who are part owners of local drug operations. Over the last decade Colombian drug gangs and allies like FARC have suffered greatly from popular backlash and new government tactics that have greatly reduced crime rates and drug production. The drug gangs (and FARC) have responded by moving more and more of their drug production to neighboring countries. That is expensive and does not always go smoothly. FARC, being a political movement to begin with (seeking, since the 1960s, to establish a communist dictatorship) finally agreed to government demands for peace talks but does not want to just abandon the drug business, which provides the cash necessary to keep thousands of armed followers on duty. The Mexican Sinola cartel is already operating some drug refining (turning coca leaf into cocaine) camps in Ecuador and Venezuela. Moving into Colombia itself is not likely because the Colombian security forces are the most effective in the Americas and Sinola is looking for more profits, not more deadly security forces.

March 11, 2013: In the southwest a FARC motorcycle bomb went off outside a police station, wounding three policemen and 14 civilians.

March 9, 2013: The U.S. expelled two Venezuelan diplomats in retaliation for Venezuela expelling two American diplomatic officials last week. The U.S. had hoped that the designated successor to Chavez, Nicolás Maduro, might be interested in improving relations with the United States. This was not the case and the Venezuelan government encouraged anti-American rumors and fantasies in the wake of Chavez dying. Maduro does not have the charisma of Chavez and apparently will rely on using anti-American rants to maintain popular support.

March 8, 2013: Leftist ELN rebels were apparently convinced (by the German government) that two elderly German brothers they seized in November were not really spies. Or maybe the Germans managed to pay a ransom (which is illegal in Colombia). The two captives were tourists, but ELN believed they were part of a clever scheme to spy on the leftist rebels. ELN has increasingly used kidnapping to stay in business while it is also seeking to go legit and get amnesty like the larger FARC.

March 7, 2013: Venezuelan officials announced that they planned to embalm Hugo Chavez, like Russian dictator Vladimir Lenin, and put him on display for continued worship by his admirers. After discussing this with the Russian embalming experts the idea was dropped. For long-term embalming to work the body must begin embalming treatments immediately and the Venezuelans waited too long. In life, Chavez was openly opposed to embalming and made it clear he wanted to be buried. Thus it was not safe for any officials to make plans for embalming while Chavez was alive.

March 5, 2013: In Venezuela president Hugo Chavez died of cancer, after two years of treatment (usually in Cuba). His designated successor is vice president Nicolás Maduro, a lifelong socialist and former union official who was an early supporter of Chavez. Maduro has to stand for election as president on April 14th and seems determined to exploit the Chavez “legend” and do whatever else it takes to garner enough votes to become leader. Maduro is as clueless as Chavez about how an economy works and seems prepared to continue the Chavez policies that have killed economic growth.

Elected populist dictators like Chavez are common in South America, despite the fact that these guys always make the economic conditions worse. Voters often prefer another populist to someone who knows what to do to fix the economy, and this means many South American countries never reach their economic potential. Over the last few decades a growing number of locals realized that there was a fundamental problem and knew what solutions worked, but they still tend to get out-voted by populist politicians who know how to lie convincingly. It’s more than just blaming foreigners and other mysterious forces for the poverty and lack of economic opportunity, there’s also a lot of showmanship and pandering to popular myths and fantasies. It’s a disease, like Chavez’s cancer, with staying in power. Neighboring Colombia applied the cure (economic freedom, responsible government) and has prospered. This has not gone unnoticed in Venezuela and Maduro is hoping reality doesn’t catch up with him before he can burnish his reputation and provide for his retirement (he is not very corrupt but his lawyer wife is).

Just before the announcement of the death of Chavez, the Venezuelan government revealed that it had just expelled two U.S. Air Force officers (working at the U.S. embassy under diplomatic immunity) accusing them of spying. The real reason for the expulsions appears to have been an attempt to make it more difficult for the U.S. to stay in touch with opposition groups in Venezuela. A popular conspiracy theory among leftists in Venezuela is that the CIA caused Chavez to get cancer.




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