Peace talks with the major leftist rebel group FARC were believed to have concluded in late 2015 with a compromise on amnesty. FARC insisted on amnesty and had to settle for less because most Colombians want the most violent FARC men punished. Now FARC is threatening to walk away unless additional demands are met. Many suspect that the real problem is that some FARC factions are not willing to disarm. The peace deal calls for all FARC members to begin surrendering their weapons in late March and to complete that process by the end of May. FARC does not want to face an armed uprising within its ranks. That would mean disarmed FARC members would be siding with the government against the still armed renegade factions. This is dangerous because FARC has a long history of murdering members to desert, especially if they go to work for the government. The government still believes it can work out these problems by March as well as get FARC to comply with agreements already made.
For example the government, and the rural population, are pressuring FARC to fully deliver on its promise to help with the landmine problem. Numerous FARC factions, especially those still heavily involved with the drug gangs, are still planting landmines and not willing to help find and remove them. In March 2015 FARC agreed to work with the army to clear landmines. This came after much government pressure on FARC to be more helpful in getting rid of all the landmines it had planted since the early 1990s. The leftist rebels finally agreed to cooperate with the government to make Colombia “landmine free” by 2025. These mines have killed or wounded over 11,000 Colombians, most of them civilians and are very unpopular. FARC is blamed for them even though many are planted by drug gangs and the smaller ELN. Colombia still suffers many landmine casualties a year and only Cambodia and Afghanistan have more such losses annually. These landmines are still believed to be present in about two thirds of rural areas. For a long time the problem was that FARC no longer had a records of where all the mines were placed and was reluctant to admit this. Now FARC officials will share what records they do have, including consulting FARC men involved in planting mines in areas where no records were kept. The government is expanding its force of landmine clearing specialists from 600 to 10,000 to handle access to FARC controlled areas known to contain landmines, often a lot of them.
The second largest leftist rebel group (ELN, a third the size of FARC) now wants to talk peace as well. At the end of 2015 it was announced that Ecuador agreed to replace Venezuela as the site of peace talks between Colombia and ELN. After nearly half a century of violence, leftist rebels have rapidly lost support, recruits and territory since 2000. The drug gangs and leftist rebels have merged in many parts of the country, and the war in increasingly about money, not ideology. The leftist rebels are definitely fading but all that drug money can keep some of them in the game for quite a while even though most of the cocaine production has moved to Peru (but is now moving back). Many of the leftists are disillusioned and it is becoming harder to recruit new gunmen who are not just mercenary killers.
Whatever problems Colombia has they can take some comfort in the fact they are much better off than people in Venezuela. The eastern neighbor of Colombia, Venezuela recently avoided civil war after the December elections crippled the ruling leftists. But now the leftist president still has to deal with an economic collapse largely brought on by government mismanagement and corruption. The situation was made much worse in the last two years by the collapse of the oil price which went from over $100 a barrel to less than $30. One of the worst fears of the leftist president and his cronies is that with the opposition in control of Congress a lot of the corruption among leftist politicians is going to get unwelcome publicity. While the president can continue blaming that on the United States and Colombia the recent elections made it clear that most Venezuelans no longer support the government “foreign conspiracy” explanation for all the problems that are pretty clearly locally made. Currently the leftists are determined to hold on to the presidency and control of the government bureaucracy by trying to block anything the new Congress tries to do. That will be increasingly difficult as the economic problems get worse and the leftist leadership has no way to fix that. The new opposition Congress wants to remove president Maduro legally and within six months. Maduro’s current term does not end until 2019 and Maduro wants until then to make things all better.
One of the more obvious Venezuelan problems is the soaring murder rate, which in 2015 reached 90 murders per 100,000 population. While that rate is exceptional by global standards it is part of a larger trend. In short, Central America and South America have long had very high murder rates (currently 5-12 times higher than in the United States). Some cities were much worse. The murder rate of Caracas, the capital and largest city in Venezuela has been over 200 killed per year per 100,000 population. That's eight times the 24 per 100,000 rate in the capital of neighboring Colombia. This makes Caracas more violent than the worst hit (by drug gang violence) Mexican border city (Ciudad Juárez) where the murder rate has been nearly as large. The national rate for Venezuela grew as the economic problems got worse. Since 2013 (when the oil price began dropping) the rate has increased 30 percent. By way of comparison the murder rate in Venezuela is several times the current rate in Iraq, and nearly twenty times the rate in the U.S. It's also more than twice the rate in Afghanistan. Compare that to the Western hemisphere in general, where the rate is about 8 per 100,000 people a year. That in turn is much higher than in Europe, where it is about 3-4. Middle Eastern nations have rates of between 5 and 10 per 100,000. The leftist government is more corrupt than its predecessors and that has led to a proliferation of criminal gangs who find that they can kill at will because the police are either too scared or too well-bribed to interfere. The leftist government has, since 2000, launched more than twenty “anti-crime” campaigns and none of them worked. The criminals prospered and the voters remembered.
The leftist politicians of Venezuela saw this coming and just before the elections used their control of Congress to appoint enough additional leftist judges to the Supreme Court to enable the government to block an opposition majority in Congress. That seemed to work as the Supreme Court invalidated the election of enough opposition candidates to deny the new opposition Congress a two-thirds majority (and the power to change the constitution). This is a delaying tactic by the leftists, in the hope that they can conjure up a solution to their economic mess.
The recent parliamentary elections made it clear that most Venezuelans were fed up the ideas of radical populist president Hugo Chavez, who died in March 2013 after he had trashed the Venezuelan economy and democracy. His handpicked replacement was even worse. The old Chavez dream of Venezuela becoming a socialist dictatorship supported by oil revenue rapidly faded along with cash reserves and the national credit rating. While Venezuela is now looking forward to reconstruction (rather than civil war) under a non-socialist government Colombia continues to prosper and reduce drug gang and leftist rebel violence.
January 15, 2016: For the first time in a year the Venezuelan Central Bank released economic statistics. The government had been criticized for withholding this data and it soon became obvious why. The bank reported inflation of 141 percent a year compared to 68 percent the last time the bank released data at the end of 2014. Equally bad is the GDP number, which is down 7.1 percent for the year as of October 2015. At the same time the government announced new measures, including a presidential emergency decree that enables the president to create and enforce new economic measures without the approval of Congress. The government also repeated its belief that the low oil prices, high inflation and growing shortages are all caused by foreign (the U.S., Colombia and the West in general) schemes to destroy socialist rule in Venezuela. Naturally the leader of the opposition controlled Congress pointed out (and the media has to mention it) that the president was proposing more of the methods which caused the economic mess in the first place. Behind the scenes the opposition is trying to convince the president and his cronies to agree to some sort of political compromise that will allow practical economic solutions to the current mess. Some of the leftist politicians are willing, but the fanatic leftists want no part of compromise and insist on even more socialism to cure the problem. The numbers cannot be changed by faith in socialism. Consider that currently Venezuela’s low grade (“dirty”) oil only fetches $24 a barrel but costs $20 a barrel to produce. Before the collapse of oil prices over the last two years oil sales represented 95 percent of Venezuelan exports. The oil income was the main source of income for the government and the cornerstone of the national economy. The math of it all makes the leftist solutions look absurd. The voters understand that but the president of Venezuela does not.
For the first time in over a decade (since the leftist government seized control of mass media) the president of Venezuela found himself openly criticized on national television. This occurred because the state controlled mass media could not keep the head of the opposition controlled congress from getting on the air to criticize the recent state-of-the-nation speech by the president. This was an easy target because the leftist president offered no new (or workable) solutions to the economic crises, just more of the usual leftist promises and assurances. The opposition leader responded with solutions that have more popular appeal and the president was not pleased. Nevertheless the president did offer to cooperate without providing any details.
January 13, 2016: In Venezuela the opposition controlled Congress decided to not confront the leftist Supreme Court right now and accepted the court ruling that blocked three opposition members from taking their seats in Congress. The Supreme Court backed a government accusation that the three had illegally bought votes. The opposition calls that bogus and will see what the Supreme Court does when presented with evidence that contradicts the government accusations. Meanwhile the opposition majority can pass new laws to fix the economy and see if the government blocks those as well. If the government does, the popular anger at the leftist politicians will increase.
January 7, 2016: In Venezuela the army leadership pledged its loyalty to leftist president Maduro. This is not a surprise because before the elections the military leaders made it clear that they would not back any effort to overturn the results of the vote by force. The generals noted the polls indicating a big loss for the socialist government and, despite many of them getting promoted mainly because of “loyalty” to the socialist party, they turned out to be soldiers first and socialists second. That may have been encouraged by the fact that is was now obvious that the socialist government had wrecked his armed forces along with the economy. The government has replaced skilled and competent officers with men selected primarily for their loyalty to the ruling socialists. These commanders were then ordered to forget about traditional military thinking and adopt bizarre doctrines invented by the socialists. Even many of the officers promoted for their loyalty began having second thoughts about all this. To deal with this the socialist government formed (and armed) a large civilian militia led by local socialist politicians. This upset the army as well, as did the fact that many of these militiamen were also gangsters and partly responsible for the sharp increase in crime. The army leadership knows an armed insurrection by the socialist militias would be a problem the army would have to deal with. So the generals told president Maduro that the army defends Venezuela not the socialist party that just lost control of parliament and may soon lose the presidency as well.