Over two years of peace talks with FARC are now stalled because the rebels insist that they must have complete amnesty. Many rebels are willing to end the decades of violence, renounce the gangster life 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 tried 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. That did not work. There is no easy way out of this mess.
In late 2014 the falling price of oil (from $110 a barrel in 2013 to under $50) led the government to cut forecasts for 2015 GDP growth from 4.8 percent to 4.2. That has been cut still further, to under four percent. The price of oil continues to decline with little hope in sight for a change. The GDP growth for 2014 was 4.7 percent, the highest rate in South America. In 2014 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 in 2015. 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.
As the leftist rebels fade it becomes obvious that the biggest threat to security are the criminal gangs. These have always been around but grew enormously along with the rise of cocaine production in the 1990s. Driven out of Peru and Bolivia the drug gangs moved to Colombia, allied (or, more accurately, hired) with leftist rebels and within a decade were a major economic and political force in the country. After 2000 the country mobilized and went after the leftist rebels (active since the 1960s) and the drug gangs. While that campaign (still ongoing) greatly weakened the leftists and drove a growing number of drug gangs out of the country, many now unemployed leftists, gangsters (and members of anti-leftist militias formed to oppose the leftists in the 1990s) discovered they preferred the outlaw life and found work in new gangs. Crime is still way down from a decade ago but all those gangs are making further reductions difficult and in some areas impossible. While some of these gangs are still involved with drugs, many more are moving to illegal mining. While not as profitable as cocaine, there is not as much police pressure. That is changing but not quickly enough to slow the growth of these gangs.
The Venezuelan government has decided to divert foreign currency from the economy towards paying off foreign loans and maintaining Venezuela’s’ international credit rating. This means inflation will be over 100 percent for 2015 as shortages increase along with unemployment. Avoiding default makes Venezuela’s few allies (like China) remain willing to continue investing in the country. While the government is still at war with privately held companies it has quietly decided to clean up the corrupt management of the national oil company. Over the last decade the effort to change the economy into a socialist one also meant replacing the efficient management of the oil company with political favorites. This led to an exodus of many skilled people who had made the oil company efficient and now that oil company, the main source of government, is a mess. The new, professional, management has apparently been ordered to deal with the corruption that has developed in the oil company as some former managers are now facing prosecution. Privately owned businesses (especially ones with foreign owners) continue to be blamed for the economic problems and are treated like “enemies of the people.”
The Venezuelan government blame all its economic problems on foreign conspiracies (usually involving the United States and Colombia) and is responding to that by arresting more and more of its critics and accusing them of belonging to this conspiracy. The government insists these American plots are real but never produces any evidence. To the government that just shows how clever, and dangerous, the American schemes are. This attitude perplexes Americans (except for a tiny group of fans who agree with Venezuela that the American government is behind all sorts of secret plots) and a growing number of Venezuelans who realize that the United States is mainly concerned with Venezuelan turning into a conduit for drug smuggling and confiscation of property belonging to Americans (mainly economic investments in Venezuela). All this conspiracy talk is meant to encourage the minority of the population (about 20 percent) that still supports the socialist revolution the government is promoting. The government increasingly sees a need to eventually mobilize its supporters to use force, if necessary, to prevent the majority of Venezuelans from crippling the leader of the revolution (president Maduro) with massive losses in upcoming parliament elections. Currently only 22 percent of voters approve of Maduro and another poll shows over 80 percent of Venezuelans blame Maduro for the economic mess. Some politicians are calling for him to resign, or be forcibly removed. Maduro blaming American conspiracies for the economic mess is seen as a ploy to justify remaining in power because the Americans have cleverly found a way to crush the socialist revolution via manipulated elections. For the moment most Venezuelans believe they can get rid of their inept government via elections, but the inept government is preparing for war, and not with America but with a majority of Venezuelan voters. Since early 2014 the security forces have been using lethal force against peaceful anti-government demonstrations. Real or imagined political opponents of the government have been arrested and prosecuted. But more and more of these prosecutions are being overruled by judges who were not installed by the current government.
Everyone wants Venezuela fixed but no one has a practical plan for how to do it. The basic problems are not getting better. The Venezuelan government recently announced that the official inflation rate at the end of 2014 was 68.5 percent, compared to 56 percent in 2013. The government also admitted that the economy is contracting, at a rate of over 5 percent a year. Many believe that GDP has shrunk even more given the extent of unemployment, businesses closing, the falling price of oil and increasing shortages. Desperate for a solution, the government agreed to legalize the buying and selling of dollars. This was only a band aid applied to a much more serious wound.
March 15, 2015: Despite their unilateral ceasefire, some FARC factions are still active and running into soldiers. This has led to six FARC men killed and 18 arrested in the last week. All this took place in the southwest (Huila) and central Colombia (Tolima).
In Venezuela the government used its majority in parliament to get a law passed giving the president the ability to rule by decree for the next nine months. The government says it needs these powers to deal with the foreign threat from the United States and the internal threat from those who seek to sabotage the economy. President Maduro is also angry about new (March 9th) American sanctions imposed on Venezuela, especially the sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials for criminal activity. In particular these sanctions were in response to these officials using lethal force against peaceful anti-government demonstrators.
March 14, 2015: In neighboring Venezuela the government gave much media coverage to 100,000 military personnel beginning ten days of training exercises. The media were instructed to cover all the new Russian and Chinese weapons that had been obtained in the last few years and the belief that all this military might was necessary to deter an American invasion.
March 13, 2015: In the capital a roadside bomb wounded five policemen and two civilians. ELN is suspected as being responsible.
March 12, 2015: Although the government refuses to join the unilateral ceasefire FARC has been employing since last December 18th, it was announced today that the air force would cease “non-emergency” air raids for 30 days. This is in response to FARC generally abiding by their own ceasefire. The air force will still conduct air attacks if ground troops get into trouble with FARC gunmen. Ground patrols will continue.
March 11, 2015: The ELN freed four government geologists who had been kidnapped in the northeast on February 12th. Earlier in March ELN freed a rural mayor they had taken in late 2014. ELN is engaged in preliminary talks before possibly starting peace negotiations.
March 9, 2015: After much government pressure on FARC to be more helpful in getting rid of all the landmines it has planted since the early 1990s the leftist rebels have agreed to cooperate with the government to make Colombia “landmine free” by 2025. These mines have killed or wounded over 11,000 people, most of them civilians, since then, are very unpopular and FARC is blamed for them. Such mines 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 record 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.
March 5, 2015: For the first time Colombian military officials (four generals and an admiral) joined the FARC peace talks held in Cuba. The officers are there to try and arrange a complete ceasefire. FARC has long wanted the government to cease operations against them while the peace talks are going on. That did not happen because in the past such ceasefire agreements enabled FARC to rebuild and then abandon the peace negotiations. The government sees the possibility of working out some kind of deal that can be monitored to ensure FARC does not cheat. The arrival of the five senior officers is an attempt to work out the details. The government admits that the peace talks, and the unilateral FARC ceasefire has reduced violence and probably saved hundreds of lives and prevented thousands of wounds and injuries.
February 28, 2015: Colombian police found over a hundred tons of explosives and components for assembling cannon shells on a Chinese freighter that was stopping off on its way to Cuba. The cargo of weapons was not on the ship manifest and the ship was interned and the captain arrested until the issue could be sorted out. China insisted the cargo was legal.
February 26, 2015: The U.S. has extradited three men (a Greek and two Romanians) from Montenegro (where they were arrested in December) and will prosecute them in the United States for arms trafficking. In particular the U.S. has lots of evidence that the three were offering to supply weapons to leftist FARC rebels in Colombia.
February 24, 2015: In the northwest soldiers seized 3.3 tons of cocaine headed for Mexico and then the United States. This was a large seizure. The largest ever was in 2005 when 15 tons was taken in one raid. In 2014 there was a seven ton seizure. This recent seizure represents over one percent of annual production in Colombia (Peru is now the world leader in cocaine production) and is costing the cocaine producers nearly $20 million. That’s a big financial hit but not a fatal one. In 2014 over 30 tons of cocaine was seized, which is one of the reasons so much of the production is switching to Peru.
February 22, 2015: In the east (Norte de Santander) near the Venezuelan border at least six leftist rebels were killed in a clash with troops. Three soldiers were wounded. Some of the dead were identified as members of the leftist EPL. This group made peace with the government in 1991 and disbanded. But a small number of EPL members refused to quit and have kept operating along the border, often as allies with the ELN.