December 25, 2014:
The resumed FARC peace talks are again stalled by the popular opposition to amnesty for FARC leaders. This is becoming a major problem as FARC is adamant about how essential it is for there to be more amnesty for FARC leaders and veteran fighters. Most Colombians, especially the many victims of FARC, insist that FARC members answer for their crimes. If this were done a lot of the FARC members could be subject to prosecution and are not about to surrender and disarm to face that. FARC also wants the government to cease operations against them while the peace talks are going on. That is not happening because in the past such ceasefire agreements enabled FARC to rebuild and then abandon the peace talks. This impasse could cause nearly two years of negotiations to be abandoned and FARC has backed off (but not abandoned) that demand.
Many rebels are willing to end the decades of violence and disarm, but many in the leadership are subject to prosecution for the crimes (murder, rape, kidnapping and sundry acts of violence and theft) they have committed during their years with FARC. This problem is compounded by the fact that many of these criminal acts were committed or ordered by FARC and ELN leaders or veteran rebels who are publically known. There are often still witnesses out there willing to testify. Many Colombians are willing to let the war (which the leftist rebels have been losing for the past decade) go on rather than let so many of the rebels “get away with murder.” Until this issue is revolved the peace talks are, in effect, stalled. All other issues have been settled. FARC is quietly trying to get an agreement that takes advantage of a 2012 amendment to the constitution that allows the government to prosecute and convict FARC and then suspend the sentences. Doing that discreetly would not eliminate the possibility of a public uproar and political crises. There is no easy way out of this mess.
The leftist rebels do not have time on their side. Every month FARC and ELN get weaker from casualties, desertions and the fact that they have lost much of the public support they once had. The government negotiators say they can probably some amnesty, but not as much as the rebels want and that public opinion on this is widespread and strongly held. The military leaders believe that it the negotiations deadlocked the leftist rebels could be crushed by force, but this would cause thousands of casualties among the security forces and the civilian population. That approach could last another five or ten years before the leftists were reduced to the status of “nuisance” (like some violent European leftists now are). Public opinion might change after a few years of renewed heavy action but no one is sure. The only thing most Colombians can agree on is that they want peace, but on their own terms.
There are some other problems. The falling price of oil (from $110 a barrel in 2013 to $55) has led the government to cut forecasts for 2015 GDP growth from 4.8 percent to 4.2. The GDP growth for 2014 was 4.7 percent, the highest rate in South America. This year oil accounted for a little over half of exports but if the price remains low then oil will be less than half of export income. Currently about 20 percent of government revenue comes from oil. This is not a major problem for at the moment Colombia has the most dynamic and fastest growing economy in the region.
Neighboring Venezuela is much more dependent on oil and thus suffering a lot more from the plunging oil prices. Most Colombians are quite proud of this economic growth because in 2000 the country was a wreck politically and economically. Then new leaders were elected who used American aid to revamp the security forces and that led to less corruption, a continuing string of defeats for drug gangs, leftist rebels and criminals of all sorts and that led to economic growth and a better life for most Colombians.
The situation in neighboring Venezuela is much worse, the worst in the region. So the contrast between the two neighbors is even more vivid. Since taking over in 1999 the leftist Venezuelan rulers there have mismanaged the economy and squandered the shrinking oil income. In 1999 oil produced was half the revenue from exports. That is now 90 percent, mainly because government efforts to impose radical socialism has destroyed most companies that exported goods (and most of those that produced for domestic consumption). On top of that disaster, after years of oil at $100 a barrel or more, that price is plunging and has declined 50 percent in the last year. It is expected to keep declining as the major producers (the Gulf Arab states) have said they will not cut production.
The government corruption and mismanagement has hurt the Venezuelan oil industry and caused a decline in oil production from 3.5 million barrels a day in 1999 to 2.5 million today. The production decline is continuing, because the government refuses to clean up the mess in the national oil company and the oil production facilities. This collapse in oil income has created a cash shortage that the government has been dealing with by borrowing. That option is fading fast as potential lenders not the refusal to do anything about the fundamental problems. For example China has been a major lender and has provided about $40 billion. Most of these loans are repaid with Venezuelan oil. China currently imports 500,000 barrels a day of Venezuelan oil and more than half of that is to pay off loans. The amount of oil owed China increases as the oil price declines, which means Venezuela has less oil to sell for current needs. Because the socialist economic policies have driven most manufacturing, and even agricultural companies out of business nearly everything has to be imported. China is still owned more than $10 billion and the Chinese fear that they may not see much of that. China currently buys over a third of Venezuelan oil exports and is concerned with the falling production and growing unrest, as well as the prospects of getting all the loans repaid.
Inside Venezuela the government refused to release GDP data for 2014 but leaks indicate that, not surprisingly, GDP declined five percent in 2014. In 2013 the economy grew 1.3 percent. The leftist leaders of Venezuela refuse to change the way they manage the economy and blame it all on the United States and other “enemies of socialism.” This has led to over 1,400 dead since large (and illegal) anti-government demonstrations began to occur regularly earlier in 2014. Most of the protestors were not angry about the leftist policies of their government but rather the fact that there were growing shortages, increasing inflation and fewer job opportunities. The government has other woes, like increasing economic sanctions imposed by the United States (for supporting terrorism and drug smuggling) and Cuba deciding to resume diplomatic and economic relations with the United States. While Cuba insists it will remain a communist dictatorship, it’s acceptance of more economic freedom does not encourage the Venezuelan government at all. Cuba was the role model for the socialist Venezuelan government and now that role model has agreed to do what Venezuelan leaders have long denounced.
December 20, 2014: FARC began a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire. There were conditions attached that the government would not accept so this ceasefire will probably not last long. FARC demanded international observers and a formal armistice. The latter means a safe haven where FARC forces can rebuild and the government has always opposed that (which was tried in the past and worked against the government). FARC also says the ceasefire ends if their forces come under attack that will surely happen.
December 19, 2014: In the northeast (Cauca) FARC ambushed an army patrol, killing five soldiers, wounding five and capturing one. The army promptly began a major search operation to find the FARC group that took the soldiers prisoner. Elsewhere in the northeast (Norte de Santander) ELN was believed responsible for ambushing a police patrol and killing three policemen.
December 16, 2014: In the west (Choco province) ELN kidnapped the mayor of a town. The leftist rebels often use kidnapping, death threats or murder to gain the cooperation of local officials.
December 15, 2014: In the southeast troops clashed with FARC gunmen, killing nine of them and capturing four.
December 10, 2014: The peace talks with FARC have resumed. Two of the captured soldiers FARC released to get the talks resumed revealed that FARC was trying to get their prisoners to Venezuela where they would be “safe” from Colombian rescue efforts.
November 30, 2014: FARC, admitting they had made a mistake when some of their men captured an army general on the 16h, released their prisoner, who subsequently resigned from the army. Some FARC leaders thought the general could be used to obtain the freedom of imprisoned senior FARC leaders. Other FARC leaders warned that the army would reject this demand and redouble efforts to find and free the general (dead or alive) and punish his captors. This proved to be the correct assessment and the government also threatened to end the peace talks if the general was not set free. The army has been winning its war with FARC for over a decade and the FARC agreed to peace talks in the first place because it was a viable alternative to eventually being destroyed by the army efforts. The government was better aware of the true situation than some FARC leaders, who (most of them) quickly realized their error as the army began a very efficient and thorough search for the general. The government has long put a priority on freeing civilians, police and soldiers held by FARC and the security forces and the population at large support these efforts enthusiastically. The kidnapping of the general increased the enthusiasm and the FARC forces in the northwest noticed that quickly.