Colombia: Waiting For Venezuela To Get Better


March 13, 2016: In neighboring Venezuela the low oil price is having more catastrophic impact than in fellow oil producer Colombia. That has a lot to do with the fact that Venezuela has a lot more oil. This used to be a big deal. Many older Venezuelans who remember the 1970s, when Venezuela was the fourth richest country in the world (in terms of GDP per person) are trying to figure out how it all went so wrong. Before the oil prices collapsed in 2013 oil income was 23.8 percent of GDP in Venezuela while in Colombia it was 7.8 percent. A more critical difference between the two countries was that Colombia still has a diversified and growing economy while Venezuela does not. That is typical of many countries with a lot of oil income and it often turns out to be a curse. Like now, where the low oil prices are a minor problem for Colombia which still has the most dynamic economy in South America. Colombian GDP is still growing (3 percent a year) while Venezuela’s is declining at nearly 10 percent a year (and getting worse). Now (2016) year oil accounts for over 90 percent of Venezuelan exports. In 1999 oil only accounted for half of exports but since then a new socialist government took over in the late 1990s and wrecked the economy in an attempt to keep the majority of voters happy. That effort has failed in a spectacular fashion and that worries Colombia. Recent parliamentary elections in Venezuela gave an opposition coalition a majority but the socialists who wrecked the economy still control the presidency, the courts and the military. That has created a stalemate that is being slowly broken by the continued decline of the economy. The non-socialist opposition got control of parliament on the promise of improving the economy. The socialists so far refuse to curb the practices that caused the economic collapse and imply that they will use force if anyone tries to oust them from power. So for the moment Colombians can only wait and hope that the situation in Venezuela resolves itself peacefully and soon.

Colombia has much less threatening political problems. While FARC is, in compliance with its peace agreement and much less violent of late the smaller ELN is not. Not only does ELN continue to stage attacks against economic targets and companies that will not pay “revolutionary taxes” (protection money) it also believes its own press releases, which usually ends badly. For example in early February the ELN threatened widespread violence if businesses nationwide did not shut down for three days. This “economic curfew” was supposed to intimidate the government into making concessions and offering ELN a better peace deal than FARC got. The curfew effort was a flop and had lots of costly side effects. Not only was ELN exposed as less powerful than claimed but the curfew stunt got ELN kicked off Twitter. That was a major blow as ELN had been using social media to build an illusion of power the leftist rebels did not have. The one real growth area for ELN, which they don’t brag about, is the ability to take over areas (and drug operations) long controlled by FARC because the larger (by two or three times) leftist rebel group is making peace. Many hardcore (or outlaws at heart) FARC personnel are joining ELN and that is making it possible for ELN to take over FARC operations without a fight. This is a known problem but the government is not going after it in a big way until the FARC peace deal is finalized and there is a better sense of how many FARC members have gone rogue.

March 11, 2016: FARC and the government openly admitted that they will not be able to sign the final peace deal by March 23rd, a date agreed to in 2015. Meanwhile the government has been working with FARC to determine what areas will be used for FARC rebels to assemble and disarm. The disarmament is the beginning of the process of implementing the peace deal. Disarmament is supposed to begin after the final deal is signed. FARC now wants more concessions on amnesty and the referendum. That will be difficult as there is still popular opposition to the peace terms, which many Colombians consider too lenient. The government also wants to hold a referendum on the peace deal. FARC opposes having all Colombians vote on the peace deal, in part because FARC understands the degree of hatred many, if not most, Colombians feel towards the leftist rebels and their half century of violence that has left nearly a quarter of a million dead.

March 5, 2016: In the north (Antioquia province) police raided a remote ranch where it was believed the leader of the Clan Usaga drug cartel was hiding. That proved to be true and the cartel leader (Ruben Dario Avila) tried to shoot his way out and was killed.

March 3, 2016: After a two week suspension the government has restored the safe passage guarantees for FARC leaders. This was essential for these FARC leaders who wanted to fly (via Venezuela) to and from Cuba (where the peace negotiations are held). Two weeks ago the safe passage deal was suspended because some FARC leaders were using the safe passage to visit areas other than the remote bases they were supposed to return to. These FARC leaders were giving public speeches in other areas and doing media interviews. After the suspension FARC leaders soon agreed to follow the rules of the safe passage agreement.

February 19, 2016: In the east (Arauca province) a joint military-police operation along the Venezuelan border found and attacked a group of ELN rebels, killing seven and capturing two.

February 13, 2016: In the north (Cesar and Bolivar province) ELN blew down an electricity transmission line leaving three cities in the dark for over a day until repairs could be made.




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