Colombia: The Coup Next Door


October 27, 2016: The peace deal with the FARC rebels is being renegotiated. The first peace deal, worked out during negotiations that began in 2010, agreed to on August 24th and signed on September 26 th was unexpectedly rejected in the October 2 nd referendum. The only good news here is that both sides believe they can agree to new terms that will win approval in a referendum.

Opinion polls showed about-60 percent of voters willing to approve the first peace deal, even though there was still a lot of bitterness about the amnesty terms. The government negotiators were caught between popular calls for justice and FARC leaders insisting that if the amnesty terms were not attractive enough most of the FARC factions would reject the deal and go outlaw. It wasn’t just about avoiding prison it was about money. Not just the billions in cash from drug operations. FARC had literally stolen and was unwilling to give up billions of dollars in property stolen over decades of controlling vast rural areas. A lot of the stolen property was subsequently sold. The original owners want their assets back, as well as cash for damage done to structures and improvements. The FARC leaders who got rich on these deals don’t want to become poor again.

The property restitution issue has been the subject of many proposed solutions. The most promising one was in 2011 when the government agreed to a deal whereby some two million hectares (5 million acres) of land stolen (through fraud, intimidation or outright theft) since the 1990s would be returned, along with buildings and other property, to some 430,000 families. But many of those who stole the land were willing to use lots of lawyers and hired guns to avoid giving back what they took by force (or bought from those who did). This plan got a lot of land claimants killed out in the still lawless rural areas. The current land crisis began in 2006 as FARC and drug gangs were driven from large areas along the borders (that being the best place to grow coca, and export the refined cocaine to overseas markets). As the former FARC territory again came under government control the government found it had inherited a lot of old social and economic problems. These were suspended by the decades of FARC and drug gang rule, and that in turn created some new problems. Now the newly liberated populations were free to vote, demonstrate and protest, and many had legitimate reasons to complain. A lot of the problems had to do with real estate. Indian tribes wanted their land rights back, farmers wanted title to the land they had long worked, business owners want their property (which owners had to leave behind when they fled to escape getting killed by the rebels or gangs) back. The government is having a hard time sorting all this out, especially while under pressure to get legitimate economic activity going in what was long lawless "bandit territory."

By the end of 2014 it was clear that the FARC peace talks were stalled by the popular opposition to amnesty. This became a major problem as FARC was adamant about how essential it is for there to be more amnesty for FARC leaders and veteran fighters. Most Colombians, especially the many victims of FARC, insisted that the guilty answer for their crimes. If this were done a lot of the FARC participants could be subject to prosecution and are not about to surrender and disarm to face that. The major problem here is that many of the victims (of murder, kidnapping and land theft) have organized and become a major political force nationally. The government cannot ignore the demands of the victims for some form of justice. The victims of economic crime (stolen land, homes, businesses) want the government to offer some form of restitution. Getting the land and other property back is a struggle with lawyers while demands for government cash face a reluctant electorate. The victims are, after all, a minority. Prosecuting guilty FARC leaders is universally popular and relatively inexpensive to implement. The FARC leaders know that and this stalled the peace talks.

The rejected peace deal was believed to have handled all these problems with terms that many Colombians saw as misleading and intended to deceive Colombians into believing that FARC leaders would not get away with murder, and billions of dollars’ worth of stolen property and drug profits. After the referendum it was discovered that a lot of Colombians did notice that the peace deal terms depended on FARC voluntarily revealing how many billions of dollars they had hidden in foreign banks after the amnesty was approved. Worse, the extent to which that blood money was used for restitution (to the victims of FARC crimes) was to be determined by the FARC leaders.

Finally there was the impact of what was going on next door in Venezuela, where populist socialists took over the government by promising more than they could deliver and now refuse to give up power. The rejected peace deal gave FARC guaranteed seats in parliament and the freedom to do whatever they wanted with their blood money and status as a legal political party to turn Colombia into Venezuela. To many outside observers this seems absurd but to those who have lived next door to Venezuela as that country self-destructed it seemed all too possible that FARC, which was always openly allied with the socialist dictatorship in Venezuela, would be tempted to try the same madness in Colombia.

FARC also protests the validity of the vote. Only 37 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot and 49.78 percent of those approved the peace deal. Some FARC supporters openly observed that this demonstrated how democracy does not work. It’s attitudes like that which led to the low voter turnout by people who told pollsters they approved the peace deal. Those who opposed the deal were more committed because many of them had lost kin or property to FARC.

Some of the peace deal terms are not contentious and those involve the process of identifying and disarming the FARC members. Once a peace deal is approved the 7,000 armed and 3,000 or so unarmed FARC members will have about two months to assemble in 31 demobilization camps to surrender their weapons and be registered for benefits like government jobs, training and other education programs plus medical care and debriefing. The camps will be monitored by UN teams and demobilization will take no more than six months. Also in the peace terms are legal proceedings for FARC members known to have committed major crimes. The amnesty process is based on the one used in other nations and involves cooperation from the accused (who did what to whom when and where) to qualify. The demobilization process is expected to be completed after about 14 months although the bad memories will linger for generations. Demobilized FARC members will get some cash assistance and FARC leaders will be able to engage in political activity (via forming parties, running for election and voting).

What is being renegotiated is the amnesty and restitution terms as well as special political rights (guaranteed seats in parliament) that are in the rejected deal. The government has extended the ceasefire with FARC until the end of the year and if there is not sufficient progress the negotiations will cease and the war will resume. Otherwise, the talks will continue until acceptable (to everyone) terms can be agreed on.

ELN Will Negotiate

Long delayed peace negotiations with the ELN, a smaller (fewer than 2,000 gunmen) and more diehard leftist rebel group begin today in Ecuador. Actually the formal talks don’t start until November 3rd but today is when delegates from both sides arrive in the Ecuador capital. This comes after months of delays because some ELN factions refused to release kidnapping victims, which both sides agreed was a pre-condition to talks. ELN appears to have complied with this aspect of the agreement. ELN and the government have not agreed to a ceasefire and that will be one of the first items to be negotiated. Meanwhile there are already reports from locals of ELN gunmen trying to take over from FARC in areas where FARC has left or halted operations. ELN is waiting to see how the FARC agreement works out before agreeing to any peace terms. ELN has been less active recently, in part this is because the FARC ceasefire means the security forces can now concentrate on ELN and ELN is trying to adapt to that. After the FARC peace deal was signed ELN announced it would cease combat operations between September 30th and October 5th so as not to interfere with the referendum vote. But after October 5th that temporary ceasefire ended even though ELN remained committed to peace negotiations. So far this year 46 ELN members were killed in combat, 388 were captured and 252 have voluntarily surrendered voluntarily. That’s over a third of estimated ELN strength at the beginning of the year. ELN has had some new recruits, but not enough to make up for losses.


Next door Venezuela is collapsing economically and politically. That is one reason FARC and ELN are so eager to negotiate peace deals. Venezuela has, since 1999, been an ally of FARC and willing to do business with the drug cartels FARC worked for. But the elected leftist leaders in Venezuela showed how a government that FARC advocated would work in practice. The leftist rulers of Venezuela destroyed their economy and refuse to admit they are the problem. This is alarming all the neighbors and the UN because the Venezuelan government refuses to accept foreign aid for a population suffering obvious, and growing, food and medicine shortages.

Since 2015 one unworkable government “economic recovery” plan after another was proposed and none worked. The government insists that if it has enough time it can fix the economy. In practical terms the government does not want to give up power and be subject to prosecution and confiscation of wealth many officials have amassed as the economy fell apart. The government is rapidly running out of cash and has lost most popular support for any of their radical solutions. Attempts to get more loans out of China, a major customer for Venezuelan oil and major lender, are now turned away without explanation. The Chinese see where this is going and want to cut their losses. China has been a major diplomatic and economic supporter but because China is now obviously backing away no one else is willing to lend. Venezuela already has lots of foreign debt and some of it looks like it won’t get paid back even after a new government takes power. In 2015 China agreed to provide another $5 billion but only for maintenance and upgrades on Venezuelan oil production facilities. This was so China has a better chance of getting paid back the other $40 billion it has loaned Venezuela. But even that deal appears to be unravelling because of corruption and mismanagement in the state owned oil operations, which has seen profits decline by over 60 percent this year. Since 2014 China has been quietly advising Chinese working in Venezuela to get out and over 30,000 Chinese have done so. New investments from China or Chinese firms, once so abundant, have disappeared since 2015. While most lenders can survive the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, some of the nations that depended a lot of Venezuela are suffering. Cuba is a major victim of this because for over a decade Cuba got cheap oil and lots of dollars from the leftist government of Venezuela. In return Cuba provided cheap medical professionals, practical advice on how to run a socialist government and, unofficially, help in certain illegal activities, like smuggling drugs to North America and Europe as well as moving cash that Venezuelan leaders had stolen. The Cuban economy is in recession again and looking for other patrons.

The Venezuelan economy is a mess largely because there has been 17 years of disastrous misrule. Then there is the major external problem; low oil prices. In Venezuela oil income has been the pillar of the economy for over half a century. Oil was 23.8 percent of GDP in 2013 and the world price for oil has fallen by more than 50 percent since then and shows no sign of revival. The Venezuelan government has not been willing to adapt like other oil dependent nations have. For example neighboring Colombia also depends a lot on oil income but has adapted more effectively because it has a diversified and free-market economy while Venezuela no longer does. In 2016 oil income accounts for over 90 percent of Venezuelan exports. In 1999 oil only accounted for half of exports but then a new socialist government took over and did all the wrong things to the state owned oil company that had long been the key to Venezuelan economic survival. The new socialist government diverted necessary investment in maintaining and expanding the oil production facilities and infrastructure (power, water, roads) in general. The oil company workforce was purged and that replaced a lot of competent managers and workers with people known mainly for their loyalty to the new government. This meant that as the oil prices fell so did Venezuela’s ability to even maintain production. Now there are electric power blackouts, bad roads, unsafe bridges, undependable water supplies and much more. Criminal activity has soared to give Venezuela the highest murder and robbery rates in the world. The socialist politicians gained and retained power for over a decade by appealing to the poor, but the government has lost that and many poor communities are now controlled by criminal gangs, which offer more protection from crime and starvation than the government can.

While the Venezuelan government is distracted by its delusional leadership the economy is obviously imploding. GDP fell 6.2 percent in 2015 and about twice that for 2016. This indicates likely economic and social collapse in 2017. Currently Venezuela is experiencing annual inflation rates of over 700 percent and food shortages are so bad that more and more people, especially young children, are visibly starving. Venezuelans spend most of their time seeking food and if they are near enough to the Colombian border they cross to find what is no longer available in Venezuela. Meanwhile the Venezuelan government is not doing much that helps. What the government is doing is trying to suppress local media from publicizing the corruption of senior leaders and their families. More details of that misbehavior are becoming visible because more Venezuelans who once supported the leftist government no longer do and are openly discussing corruption that was long known to exist but difficult to prove or prosecute. It’s still difficult to prosecute these crimes in Venezuela (because the leftist leaders still control the courts and police) but such misbehavior can and increasingly is prosecuted outside the country. So these revelations are not only embarrassing to the leftist leaders but threatens the billions of dollars they have moved out of Venezuela.

While the Venezuelan government has been unable to prevent economic collapse and starvation it has succeeded in blocking efforts to legally replace the current president with one more capable of dealing with the economic problems. Since late 2015, when the opposition won a majority in Congress there have been efforts to remove president Maduro legally. The favored, and very popular effort, employs a legal (it’s in the constitution) recall referendum that would remove Maduro and allow new elections by the end of 2016. Despite the obvious popularity of such a referendum the government has so far prevented the recall vote any way (legal or otherwise) it can. Maduro’s current term does not end until 2019 and Maduro wants until then to make things all better. Government incompetence and corruption are the main causes of all the economic woes but the government will not even discuss, much less admit their actions are a problem to be solved. Recent opinion polls indicate that 80 percent of the voters want to remove Maduro and are increasingly open about that. The government has been unsuccessful in controlling the media, particularly the Internet, so this embarrassing news gets all over the country and the world. Most traditional mass media is under government control but most Venezuelans consider that media nothing but misleading propaganda. The parliament can still investigate corruption and mismanagement in the government and is doing so but the president still controls the courts and police and interferes with parliament reform efforts any way he can.

The Venezuelan government blames all its problems on a conspiracy by the United States to sabotage the Venezuelan economy and eventually stage a coup. Few people inside or outside Venezuela believes that and what is keeping Maduro in power is his ability to pay the security forces and some of the unarmed government bureaucracy enough to suppress the opposition. Maduro knows that not a lot of people in the opposition want a violent revolution and are willing to try just about anything to achieve needed changes peacefully. How long that will last is unclear. It always is until it suddenly isn’t.

October 26, 2016: In Venezuela hundreds of thousands of people protested against the government defying the constitution and refusing to allow a referendum to remove president Nicolas Maduro from power. Polls show that over 80 percent of voters would approve removing Maduro. The demonstrations led to 140 arrests and the death of one policeman under unexplained circumstances.

October 25, 2016: In Venezuela the parliament, controlled by reformers, voted to put president Maduro on trial for illegally blocking a referendum to remove him from power. The parliament describes these actions d as a coup and most Venezuelans agree with that. Unlike most other democracy constitutions Venezuela does not allow the legislature to impeach (remove) the president. Rather the Supreme Court, whose members are appointed by the president (and approved by the legislature) do so. But before Maduro’s party lost control of the legislature in the 2015 elections he appointed enough loyal (to Maduro) new judges to the Supreme Court to block any efforts to remove him from power. The legislature and the government have agreed to meet on the 30th to try, once more, to agree on a compromise solution.

October 21, 2016: A Colombian airliner flying over Venezuela (coming from Spain to Colombia) was intercepted by a Venezuelan Su-30 fighter that came so close the airliner had to change course momentarily. Columbia complained to Venezuela which said the Su-30 was on routine patrol and it was all a misunderstanding. Colombian aviation officials are not so sure and the airline involved suspended flights over Venezuela for two days just to be on the safe side.

In Venezuela the government ordered a halt to the collection of signatures needed to trigger a referendum on the current government. That government controls the courts, the security forces and the electoral commission, which ordered the signature collection to stop. A court also banned eight opposition leaders from leaving the country.

October 17, 2016: In the northeast (Casanare province) troops clashed with a group of ELN gunmen leaving one of the rebels dead and captured four others. This comes after two dozen ELN members surrendered voluntarily in the same area.

In Venezuela the government announced that from now on anyone who openly opposes the government will not be eligible to receive emergency food aid. There are growing shortages of food most people can afford and even the government does not have enough to deal with the growing malnutrition. There is some emergency food available, but only to those who at least pretend to support the government.

October 14, 2016: The government extended the FARC ceasefire until the end of the year.

October 5, 2016: President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to achieve peace with leftist rebels (FARC and ELN). The Nobel committee that selected Santos were disappointed with the outcome of the October 2nd referendum but not enough to withdraw their selection of Santos. After all, FARC is willing to keep negotiating and peace talks with ELN are agreed to.

October 4, 2016: In the east (Arauca province) ELN blew up a section of a major pipeline near the Venezuelan border. It will take a few days to repair the damage. This is the second such ELN attack in the last month.


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