Colombia: The Ugly Americans

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April 9, 2016: The U.S. is pressuring Colombia to give in to FARC amnesty demands. In addition American officials (including the Secretary of State) met with FARC officials in Cuba and FARC made much of this and implied that the U.S. backed their amnesty demands (not exactly true but it made a great tweet for FARC). This was an unpopular move in the United States because FARC is on the list of recognized terrorist organizations. The meeting was even more unpopular in Colombia because so many Colombians want FARC leaders punished for decades of kidnappings, theft and murder. To Colombians the Americans are now taking the side of mass murderers. Right now the FARC peace deal is stalled over the amnesty issue. Meanwhile FARC is dying. A ceasefire, and the continued success of the security forces in reducing crime means FARC is running out of resources, especially cash. This has been a growing problem for several years and led to more and more desertions and difficulty in attracting new recruits. All this is great news for most Colombians because more peace means more prosperity.

Colombia continues to have the most robust economy in South America, seeing its economy grow 3.3 percent in 2015 despite the low oil prices. Fortunately for Colombia oil only accounted for 7.8 percent of GDP when oil prices began to collapse in 2013. In Venezuela oil income was 23.8 percent of GDP in 2013 and is suffering a lot. In part this is because Colombia still has a diversified and free-market 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. Venezuela’s GDP 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.

Despite its economic problems Venezuela is apparently going through with an earlier agreement to buy twelve more Su-30 jet fighters from Russia. This is in addition to the 24 Su-30 purchased in 2006. These were given to the army, not the air force because of loyalty issues. Pilots were selected mainly for loyalty. Venezuela has spent billion on Russian weapons and is seeking to buy more, especially helicopters. The details on these arms purchases have been kept secret, indicating that there was a lot of money stolen by Venezuelan officials. Russia has long tolerated that sort of thing and in many countries this is seen as another reason for buying Russian.

In Venezuela the soaring murder rate (currently 90 murders per 100,000 population) has become a major cause of popular discontent. When the government assigns a lot of police to political opponents rather than criminals it is noticed. While the state controlled mass media won’t discuss this issue the news gets around anyway, especially via the Internet. The government blames the murders, and crime in general on foreign (especially Colombia and the United States) and domestic (opposition parties) enemies. While the current Venezuelan murder 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 but has since declined. 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 nearly twenty times the rate in the U.S. The Western hemisphere in general has an average rate of 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. In 2016 a lot more prominent government supporters are getting murdered. These are usually retired officials, who no longer have their government supplied bodyguards. That sort of thing reminds well protected government officials that no one is safe from the growing crime wave.

The growing electricity shortages in Venezuela has led president Maduro to order government employees to work four day weeks for the next two months. This is not expected to have any significant impact on electricity demand as a year ago many government workers were ordered to cut work hours 25 percent (to six hours a day). This has no measurable impact on the electricity shortage. The use of rolling blackouts has gotten worse, because that does work. But people notice those temporary blackouts and don’t like it. Senior government officials are seeking to get president Maduro to resign and allow a more popular and technically competent leftist politician take his place. Maduro refuses, so far, to consider this. The new opposition Congress wants to remove president Maduro legally and by mid-2016. Maduro’s current term does not end until 2019 and Maduro wants until then to make things all better. The current mess is not the work of Maduro but of his predecessor. In 1999 Venezuelans elected a former army officer (Hugo Chavez) who proposed to solve all existing economic and social problems via radical socialism. This did not work. Chavez died in early 2013 and was succeeded by vice president Nicolás Maduro, a lifelong socialist and former union official who was an early supporter of Chavez. Maduro rigged the 2014 presidential vote to get himself elected and then made it clear he was determined to exploit the Chavez “legend” and do whatever else it took to remain in power. Maduro is as clueless as Chavez about how an economy works and was determined to continue the Chavez policies that have killed economic growth.

In an effort to maintain control of an increasingly hostile population Maduro resorted to police state methods and increasingly desperate measures. That included expelling three American diplomats after accusing them of being responsible for the collapse of the electrical generation system. The electricity problems were hard to miss as at the same time Maduro was blaming the American the lights went out for two-thirds of the country for a while. The cause was a combination of mismanagement and corruption that have left electricity production and distribution facilities poorly maintained and collapsing. Oil production was falling (for the same reasons) and sometimes there is no fuel for the power plants. A long drought had reduced hydroelectric sources. Meanwhile Maduro’s political subordinates and allies grew rich from stealing and dealing. Bribes from drug gangs keep the cocaine flowing through Venezuelan ports and air fields. Maduro has been trying to build a popular militia loyal to him and the ruling party, but the country is running out of money for buying enough loyalty. Attempts to get more loans out of China, a major customer for Venezuelan oil, are now turned away without explanation. The Chinese see where this is going and want to cut their losses. Corruption also leads to foreign suppliers not getting paid, which in turn leads to regular suppliers refusing to ship to Venezuela. This has played a role in the growing food shortages. Finding new suppliers is not easy once you have a reputation for not paying.

April 8, 2016: FARC refused to agree to a specific date on which they would begin the disarmament process. For months 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 as they stand. 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. The United States has not been much help as American diplomats are pressuring Colombia to make concessions and get the FARC peace deal done. For Colombian leaders that would be political suicide as the Colombian president, who has championed the peace talks, is seeing major declines in his approval ratings. Giving in to FARC demands is very unpopular with most Colombians.

April 7, 2016: In Venezuela president Maduro vetoed a law that would free dozens of his political opponents that had been jailed over the years for no other reason than speaking out against corruption and illegal behavior by the government. 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. For the moment Colombians can only wait and hope that the situation in Venezuela resolves itself peacefully and soon.

April 6, 2016: In Spain media stories documented long-suspected Venezuelan financial support for leftist parties that were major supporters of the leftist government in Venezuela. Leftist parties in Europe long supported the “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela even when it became obvious that most Venezuelans had rejected it because of the disastrous social and economic results. Leftists worldwide have continued to support leftist rebels and governments in South America even though the leftist social and economic policies have largely failed there. A larger problem has been leftist support for leftist rebels and terrorists. This support included providing overseas bases for criminal activity and pressuring South American governments to make concessions to the rebels and their drug gangster allies.

April 2, 2016: In the north (Bolivar province) ELN released a policeman they had captured in March. This was another gesture to help move along peace talks.

March 30, 2016: The government announced an agreement to begin peace talks with the ELN. This comes after months of informal discussions in Venezuela. ELN has been holding out for a better deal than FARC is getting but the government refused to budge on that. What caused the change of mind was the continuing problems ELN is having in keeping itself going. While FARC reduced its criminal activity during peace talks the ELN continued to stage attacks against economic targets and companies that refuse to pay “revolutionary taxes” (protection money). ELN also believes its own press releases, which increasingly 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. ELN believes that FARC will get the amnesty they demand and if they do that is something ELN could work with. Then again maybe not. ELN has tried peace talks before (in 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2005) and all failed. This time, however, the government is making progress destroying ELN on the ground and the leftist rebels cannot ignore the fact that they have less and less popular support. Founded in 1964, ELN never came close to overthrowing the government and establishing a communist dictatorship. They eventually morphed into a drug gang pretending to be leftist revolutionaries.

March 29, 2016: In western Venezuela (San Cristobal) a demonstration against higher bus fares turned violent. Two police officers were killed and four wounded. The number of demonstrations (over a hundred a week) against the government (because of a collapsing economy and surging crime rates) is increasing while also becoming larger and more violent.

March 20, 2016: In the northwest (Antioquia province) released a solider they had captured in February. This was a good will gesture to help move forward peace talks between the government and ELN.

 


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