The economy (GDP) grew by 4.3 percent in 2013, one of the highest rates of growth in South America. Thirteen years of growing prosperity was made possible by curbing crime and corruption and enforcing laws that made it easier to create and run businesses. As a result of that Colombia is on the way to surpassing Argentina (in GDP) to become the second largest economy (after Brazil) in South America. What could derail this is a return of the traditional bad habits (widespread acceptance of corruption and violence). In the past, too many businesses and politicians used money and violence, not talent and fair play to compete. After a period of relative peace and prosperity it's easy to start slipping into the traditional bad habits. That has always led to warlords, anarchy and poverty for most Colombians. The FARC promised a communist dictatorship and peace back in the 60s. The collapse of European communism in 1989-91 made it clear that a FARC victory would not bring prosperity or freedom. But if the rapacious warlord mentality fueled by corruption and lawlessness returns, the prosperity will disappear. The gangster and gunslinger mentality is still out there, always looking for an opportunity to take over again. Murder rates are going up in some parts of the country and more corruption is being encountered. These are not good trends.
Colombia still has problems with the large number of private armies and well organized criminal gangs. The political gangs, like FARC and ELN have been the target of police and military operations for over a decade and have been greatly reduced. In the last decade the government has rehabed over 50,000 former gunmen, most of them belonging to anti-leftist militias that made peace with the government when it appeared the police and army were able to protect the rural population the militias were organized to safeguard. The rehab process can take up to seven years but the government has developed methods they know work. However, corruption is growing returning and that is reducing the effectiveness of the rehabilitation process.
The peace talks with FARC continue to make progress, but many Colombians are angry about the fact that the FARC leaders and the most notorious FARC kidnappers and killers will get amnesty. Yet without some kind of amnesty many, if not most, FARC leaders (and their followers) would not accept any peace deal. FARC could still be beaten but it would take longer and the group would never be destroyed completely.
Next door the collapsing economy in Venezuela is not causing as much unrest as you might expect. That’s in large part due to the Cuban advisors, who have long experience in what you have to do to prevent popular dissatisfaction at widespread poverty and lack of freedom (and economic opportunity) from escalating into rebellion. In the 1950s Cuba had one of the largest economies in the Caribbean. But once the communist rebels took over in 1959 the economy began falling apart. Russian advisors shared their wisdom on how to set up and operate an effective police state. The Cubans made some modifications and are passing that on to Venezuela. While the Soviet Union eventually failed because of economic failure, the communist bureaucrats did create a police state system that kept Russians unhappy with this situation quiet. One of the key elements of control was exploitation of the fact that the state controlled all jobs and any actual or suspected disobedience would result in the threat of unemployment. The government could also jail anyone for any reason at any time. The only ones getting rich in such a system were the government officials who controlled the jobs and judicial system. This is how it works in Cuba and where it’s going in Venezuela.
The problem with this is that no one is taking care of the economy, which degrades until it collapses completely. That’s where the Soviet Union ended up and where Venezuela is headed. The government is keeping people in line by threatening the growing number of Venezuelans with government jobs with loss of those jobs if they misbehave. The entrepreneurs and middle class are doing most of the demonstrating although more and more are simply leaving. The Cuban advisors point that this works for the government, at least as far as maintaining a police state goes. The Cubans are less willing to discuss what this did to the economy in Cuba. The anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela this year have left at least 31 dead and nearly 500 wounded. The government is unmoved and determined to “build socialism” no matter what the cost. This will not end well, it never does.
March 19, 2014: Air Canada suspended service to Venezuela because the government won’t let the airline get money out of the country to pay for operating flights to Venezuela. The extreme foreign currency restrictions are necessary because the shrinking economy is providing less foreign currency to buy essential imports of food and consumer goods (like toilet paper). Air Canada is the first of many foreign airlines that will cease operations in Venezuela if the government doesn’t let foreign firms move cash out (mostly to pay for foreign goods and services, not profits). Cuba, since the 1960s, has cheated foreign companies out of billions of dollars by never letting them get their money or assets out of the country and, in most cases, eventually simply stealing the company assets in Cuba. Many companies operating in Venezuela have lost money in Cuba years ago and have not forgotten, so Venezuela won’t have the opportunity to steal as much as Cuba did.
In Central Colombia (Meta province) FARC kidnapped five oil company employees. Police and the army responded quickly and by the end of the day had tracked down the kidnappers and freed the captives.
March 17, 2014: In the southwest (Narino province) two policemen were kidnapped and shot dead by FARC.
March 10, 2014: In the south (Caqueta) FARC gunmen disguised as laborers opened fire on soldiers and kill four of them while also wounding four nearby civilians. This was the first such FARC attack since last July. There is supposed to be less fighting because of the peace talks but FARC has admitted that the factional fighting it is suffering from has been increasingly difficult to control. This was most visible when some FARC factions did not observe the holiday ceasefire that ended in early January. Less obvious was factions carrying out terror attacks that killed civilians despite orders from the FARC high command not to do so. The FARC leadership was not surprised when the UN openly condemned one such January 16th attack. While the FARC leadership has figured out how damaging attacks on civilians can be to the image of leftist rebels, some FARC factions simply don’t care. In 2013 FARC had to deal with dissident factions trying to assassinate government leaders and some of those factions are still in business.
March 9, 2014: Today there were elections for the Congress. President Santos’s party lost some support, getting only 47 of the 102 seats in the upper house of Congress. But if the alliance with the Conservative Party continues Santos will control 76 seats. However it is not a sure thing that the Conservative Party will continue the partnership, which expires in five months. Presidential elections take place on May 25th.
March 7, 2014: In the northeastern city of Cucuta police and soldiers thwarted several FARC bombing attacks and arrested a FARC leader. FARC and many of the criminal gangs sought to disrupt the voting but had little success.
March 4, 2014: After a two year investigation the army arrested 13 people in ten cities and charged them with stealing and reselling military weapons.
Mexico announced that 390 officers who will serve as commanders in the new Gendarmerie (paramilitary police organization) have begun training in Colombia and France. The gendarme force is supposed to begin operations in July 2014 with some 5,000 officers. The Gendarmerie will operate as a component of the Federal Police. Colombia has long had and successfully operated a similar organization in the countryside.
February 26, 2014: In the northwest a FARC bomb went off in a supermarket killing four and wounding 17. Police caught the man who placed and detonated the bomb and identified him as a FARC member.