Colombia: The Agony And The Amnesty

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September 3, 2014: FARC is adamant about there not being a peace deal unless there is more amnesty for FARC leaders and veteran fighters. This is a growing problem because most Colombians, especially the many victims of FARC, insist that FARC members answer for their crimes. 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 20 months of negotiations to be abandoned. Many rebels are willing to end the decades of violence and disarm, but not if they are subject to prosecution for the crimes (murder, rape, kidnapping and sundry acts of violence and theft) they have committed. This problem is compounded by the fact that many of these criminal acts were committed or ordered by FARC and ELN members 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.” 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 says it can get some amnesty, but not as much as the rebels want. 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.

Meanwhile FARC continues to fight hard in the southwest and northeast to earn cash to keep their armed members operational. FARC continues to derive most of its income from the drug trade as well as less lucrative crimes like extortion and theft. FARC and ELN attacks on oil fields and pipelines in the northeast have been heavier (over 60 so far) this year, resulting in oil production to fall nearly three percent versus last year. The leftists are seeking to extort “protection money” from the oil companies. That is illegal and more strictly enforced so a lot of the military clashes with leftist rebels are in the northeast and involve protecting oil facilities. The government can afford to deal with the decline in oil production because over all the economy grew six percent in 2013 and the growth is continuing.  The government campaign against FARC continues and is particularly intense in the southwest and along the Venezuelan border. Venezuela has become a sanctuary for drug gangs and leftist rebels who can afford to pay what corrupt officials demand.

In neighboring Venezuela the grim economic situation has gotten worse as the government responded by giving hardline communists more power. The far left economic policies have ruined the economy and the decision has been made to do more of what caused the problems in an effort to make it all better. The government has to do something because of the growing threat of widespread organized violence by a population that gets angrier each day because of the shortages, inflation and unemployment. Venezuela already has the highest crime rate in the region. The basic problem is that Venezuela imports 70 percent of its goods and years of price controls and rationing have corrupted the economy and driven many legitimate businesses into bankruptcy. Spending money you don’t have catches up with you eventually and there is only enough foreign currency to cover the cost of imports for another three months. The government had promised to announce solutions on August 15th and all the government came up with was promoting some of the people most responsible for the economic mess and blaming all the problems on traitors inside Venezuela and foreign (the United States and Colombia) interference. Smuggling is a major problem and the government sent 17,000 more troops to the Colombian border and tightened up border crossing security. At most this will mean the smugglers will have to pay more in bribes to get cheap oil out and all manner of consumer goods in or out. All this sustains a black market that most Venezuelans, dependent on low-paid (in local currency) jobs cannot afford. These Venezuelans depend on the government subsidized food provided under a rationing system. That has been corrupted as well and the government is trying to implement a system of finger printing all those with ration cards in order to prevent fraud and theft.  

Venezuelan inflation is running at 60 percent and while unemployment is under ten percent many people have low-paying government jobs that leave many with enough to eat (from government subsidized and rationed food) but not much else. The government claims that 40 percent of goods (especially the heavily subsidized petroleum products and staple foods) are illegally smuggled to neighboring countries (mainly Colombia) where they can be sold at a much higher price. This has made many Venezuelans rich and makes it possible for many poor Venezuelans to get by. There is a growing black market where goods are available, but at market rate prices most Venezuelans cannot afford. Until recently the government was deadlocked with pragmatists urging loosening of market controls to enable businesses to revive, survive and eliminate many of the shortages. But hardliners blocked reforms and insisted that only enforcing communist style economic controls could cure the problem.  This year the socialist government has been criticized by its own far-left zealots who have long been core supporters. The far-left faction won this debate and now the government will seek more control over the economy and how people live in order to avoid a rebellion.

The Venezuelan extreme left could never accept any suggestion that the socialist policies of the government had caused the economic collapse and urged the imposition of even more centralized control of the economy. This is what many senior Venezuelan officials are coming to realize is what has caused the economic collapse. But the far left is composed of true-believers to whom economic issues are a matter of faith, not reality. The leftists have another problem in that they are depending on Cuban economic advisors. Cuba has been an economic basket case for decades and has been forced to allow more and more market economy activity to survive. Changes like this could help, but not cure Venezuela’s economic problems. A “Cuban solution” would require a degree of state economic control similar to what Cuba has. This would do further damage to the Venezuelan economy. The Cuban economic advisors are also calling for less waste and corruption. That is difficult to do without a lot of violence. China, which is a major customer Venezuelan oil and the main source of foreign loans urges a Chinese type economy (free market with a communist dictatorship.) But the Chinese model works mainly because the Chinese entrepreneurs have been far more productive than those in Venezuela have ever been. In large part that’s because of oil exports, which account for half the Venezuelan GDP and none of the Chinese GDP have over decades removed a major economic incentive for many Venezuelans. The oil allows the government to buy its way out of a lot of wasteful policies and makes a lot of corrupt officials rich. Neither Cuba nor China have this oil bonanza and that makes a big difference.  

There is one far-left criticism that is accurate; there is a growing problem with corruption. Those who are in control are not willing to reduce the corruption because too many of the corrupt officials see that the socialist policies are not and cannot work and the money they are stealing will be a way out of this mess for themselves and their families. Unfortunately many of their less affluent followers are figuring this out as well and are becoming unruly about it. This is particularly troublesome when it happens with some of the armed militias the government has formed to provide protection against a popular uprising. Losing the support of the armed militias means the ruling socialists are another corrupt dictatorship ripe for overthrow followed by a civil war. Unless there are some fundamental (and not very socialist, thus very unlikely) economic reforms the inflation, unemployment and shortages (especially of essentials) will get worse and when the popular discontent turns to violence. This will be a problem for all of Venezuela’s neighbors, but particularly Colombia which will see lots more refugees and more years of Venezuela serving as a sanctuary for gangsters and Colombian rebels. President Nicolas Maduro may be ignoring economic competition, but he has proof that in the political competition for popularity he has lost big time this year. As of August his approval rating has fallen by over a third from 60 percent to 39 percent.

 

August 29, 2014: In the northwest the government announced the arrest of 32 local politicians for ties with criminal gangs. This is the result of confessions from anti-leftist militia leaders due to get out of jail and making sure they don’t get sent back for not reporting all their crimes. More such confessions are expected because so many of these men are due to be freed this year. This is all the result of a previous peace deal that involved 32,000 anti-leftist militiamen who accepted an amnesty deal and agreed to disband in 2006. These militias originally formed in reaction to FARC and ELN violence. These anti-leftist groups also needed money and got involved in the drug business and other crimes as well. Their crimes were not as extensive as the leftist groups (who had been around a lot longer) but punishment was demanded and their amnesty deal involved confessions and some leaders serving eight year terms. FARC does not want to go through this, in part because it will mean identifying the many politicians who secretly cooperated with FARC and ELN (out of belief in the cause, bribes or intimidation). The government also expects a large minority of demobilized FARC fighters to return to crime because many of the 32,000 demobilized anti-leftist men did. The government has studied that development intently and has a number of new ideas to avoid the recidivism. But first FARC must agree to confess and accept some punishment and so far FARC is not willing to do that.  

August 25, 2014: In the northeast troops clashed with a large group of FARC gunmen. Three soldiers were killed and four wounded before the FARC men retreated back into Venezuela taking their dead and wounded with them. FARC was in the area to intimidate local civilians into not reporting FARC operations.

August 21, 2014: In the southwest FARC ambushed a police patrol killing three policemen.

August 12, 2014: In the north (La Guajira) a long drought (in some areas no rain for two years) led to a violent demonstration (demanding more government aid) that left nine people injured.

August 11, 2014:  Venezuela ordered another 17,000 troops to the Colombian border in an effort to curb growing smuggling of oil and heavily subsidized (and rationed) goods supplied by the government. Venezuela is also closing border crossings at night, a policy Colombia calls counterproductive and illegal. Venezuela claims that the smuggling is costing the government over $300 million a month.

August 8, 2014:  In the northeast leftist rebels attacked an oil field near the Venezuelan border.

 

 

 

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