Colombia: Getting Socialism To Work

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February 3, 2017: FARC leaders are now trying to deal with FARC factions and individuals who reject the peace deal and go rogue. This is mainly 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 (of all levels) who got rich on these deals don’t want to become poor again. The revised deal provides more restitution to victims of these FARC confiscations. FARC leaders, especially those planning on forming political parties, have an interest in preventing FARC members from getting amnesty and then joining other criminal organizations. That will cost you votes. So there has been a lot of arguing, shouting and even some shooting among FARC factions as the leftist group implements the disarmament and demobilization process. This is to be complete by the end of 2017.

In an attempt to gain votes FARC leaders are holding photo opportunities in the 26 demobilization camps where they shake hands with army officers to commemorate the end of a 52 year war. The government goes along with this “end of the war” stuff but a lot of Colombians are dubious. FARC claims to have assembled 5,700 of its fighters in, or on their way to, the camps. That number implies that 5-10 percent of known (by government intel analysts) FARC members are not disarming. Some FARC fighters are also having a hard time dealing with their families, who are often hostile to the leftist rebels even after they are demobilized. Politics remains a blood sport for many Colombians. Since the late 19th century it has become common for armed socialist groups to try and impose their solution to social problems only to motivate a lot of Colombians to respond in kind. This tendency towards turning political disputes into deadly battles still exists in Colombia but is discredited at the moment because of the decades of excesses by FARC and their drug cartel partners.

Peace talks with ELN, a smaller (fewer than 2,000 gunmen) and more diehard leftist rebel group is proving difficult to get started but at the moment there is an agreements to start the primary negotiations on February 8th. Preliminary negotiations finally got started in Ecuador during November 2016 This came after months of delays because some ELN factions refused to release kidnapping victims, which both sides agreed was a pre-condition to talks. ELN has still not fully complied with this aspect of the agreement but has released the most famous captive. ELN and the government have agreed to a temporary ceasefire and a permanent one will be among 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 final 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. In 2016 at least 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.

Venezuela

President Maduro seems oblivious of all the suffering and knows that as long as he controls the security forces he will remain in charge. He also knows that most Venezuelans are too busy trying to stay alive to organize an effective opposition. Finding food is a full time occupation for a growing number of Venezuelans. At the same time the government has ordered the military and pro-government militias (who are fed regularly) to make sure that food only goes to Venezuelans who do not actively oppose the government. There would be a lot more anti-government demonstrations were it not for this use of food as a political weapon. Maduro may be in a bad spot but he knows that there is enough oil income to keep 10-20 percent of the population (security forces, oil workers, and so on) taken care of he will retain power. That, he hopes, is enough to control the unrest as North Korea or Cuba have demonstrated. Maduro is also depending on oil prices rising again, which would make it even easier for him to become president-for-life. But oil prices may not increase fast enough or high enough to bail out Maduro because even with pre-2014 oil revenues the Venezuelan economy was ruined by government corruption and hostility to privately owned businesses and entrepreneurs in general.

Foreign and local economists agree that one of the key reasons for the economic crises in Venezuela is the epic levels of corruption. Thus Venezuela was recently rated one of the most corrupt (166th out of 176 countries) nations in the world for 2016 while Colombia was 90 out of 176. In 2011 Venezuela was 162 out of 179 showing that the corruption was a cause, not a result, of the economic collapse. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while of the least corrupt (usually Denmark) is often 90 or higher. The current Venezuelan score is 17 compared to 37 for Colombia, 40 for Brazil, 35 for Peru, 31 for Ecuador, for 30 Mexico, 36 for Argentina, 66 for Chile, 74 for the United States, 11 for South Sudan, 12 for North Korea, 40 for China, 29 for Russia, and 72 for Japan. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones.

The pro-government gangs apparently have standing orders to attack any sign of public anti-government activity. This includes barging into churches during worship services and forcing the people to listen to a pro-government speech instead of what the priest was going to say about the problems most Venezuelans have to deal with.

In Venezuela the corruption is getting worse as is the economy and the food situation in general. It is not just government officials who are stealing but also officials from some of the countries still on good terms with Venezuela (Cuba, Russia, China, Iran). These foreign contacts make it easier to get assets out of the country. It has been noted that there has been a lot more air freight leaving the country than coming in. There is less and less to steal. Thus handing food distribution over to the army in early 2016 has become a major source of income for corrupt officers and troops. Soldiers are demanding bribes to move imported food to where it is needed and then more favors (including sex) are expected to get enough to eat. The soldiers deliver the food to local government officials who often add their own extra costs to the food. All these additional bribes and fees are passed on to the people who have no other source of food. The soldiers and officers quickly realized they could demand bribes from anyone else connected with the food distribution system, otherwise the food would not move. In some cases perishable food spoiled because the bribe money was not delivered in time. By 2016 nearly all food was imported and it was not enough, even without all the corruption.

The opposition to Maduro has the support of about 80 percent of the population but has not been able to mobilize that to take down the unpopular and inept government. There is an anti-government political coalition called the Democratic Unity Roundtable (DUR, or MUD in Spanish) that tried to remove Maduro legally but Maduro used his control of the Supreme Court to block that. Another advantage Maduro has is that DUR has not come up with a specific plan to deal with the economic collapse. In part that is because the DUR contains many factions that have very different solutions to the problem. Some of the DUR parties are socialist and believe that what Maduro and Chavez preached would work if implemented correctly. That’s what a lot of leftists said after communist governments all over Europe (including the Soviet Union) collapsed between 1989 and 1991. With that in mind DUR plans to spend 2017 trying to get itself organized. If that is not possible that the economy and government will be collapse and rebuilding will be carried out the hard way (slowly, sporadically and unpredictably). Many DUR leaders are aware of that and also the fact that a lot of educated and capable Venezuelans have already concluded it is hopeless and left. It’s no secret in Venezuela that more people with skills (from mechanics to engineers and medical specialists) have been leaving over since 2002 (when the government fired thousands of professionals from the state owned oil company because they could not pass the loyalty test). In the last few years the government has accelerated its efforts to nationalize or shut down privately owned businesses and that drove up the unemployment rate. Those who had the means (financial and otherwise) began to leave in greater numbers. Then a growing number of the less skilled and unskilled have been leaving as well. A growing percentage of veteran supporters of socialism are also headed for another country, and few are choosing Cuba. Opinion polls show that by late 2016 nearly 60 percent of adults wanted to leave, which is a sharp rise from 49 percent in 2015. It would appear that about two million have left already but that is accelerating as the Venezuelan economy disintegrates and food becomes increasingly difficult to get, even if you can pay black market rates. At the current rate of emigration three million will be gone by the end of 2017, which is ten percent of the population. While these economic migrants have been found in 96 countries, most are in the United States, Spain and Colombia.

February 2, 2017: ELN finally released their most well-known prisoner; Odin Sanchez. The government refused to start peace talks until ELN released Odin Sanchez because he was a former congressman who had been taken in April 2016 and was the most prominent hostage ELN had. But it was more than that. Odin had voluntarily surrendered to the ELN in order to get his brother Patrocinio, a former governor, released. That made Odin something of a hero in the fight against drug gangs and leftist rebels because Patrocinio had been held for three years and was ill. ELN wanted a healthy member of the Sanchez family because ELN was determined to get as much as they could (preferably the release of imprisoned ELN leaders) for their captive. But by allowing the brothers to trade places the ELN created a folk hero and made the rebels even more hated. The government did release two ELN men after Odin Sanchez was free, but while prominent the two ELN men are in very poor health.

January 30, 2017: In the northeast (Norte de Santander) troops clashed with some ELN gunmen near the Venezuelan border. One soldier was killed and two were wounded. The troops were guarding an oil pipeline which the ELN men may have been attempting to damage. The ELN has been attacking pipelines in this area for years.

January 28, 2017: Venezuela is demanding the Colombian politicians stop complaining about Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia and seeking state social benefits. The Colombian vice-president had recently made a remark to that effect and used a disparaging word for Venezuelans. The illegal migration to Colombia is becoming more of an issue in the Colombian border areas. Venezuela refuses to release data on migration but nations throughout the region have been more open about the arrival of more Venezuelan tourists or applicants for work permits, permanent residence or asylum.

January 27, 2017: FARC agreed to work with the government to convert half the 96,000 hectares (240,000 acres) from coca leaf to legitimate crops by the end of 2018. That would eliminate 150-200 tons a year of cocaine production (depending on the productivity of the cropland coca is removed from). This substitution program is possible because FARC controls the farmers who produce this crop. This will force production to move to adjacent countries but that takes time, is expensive and does not always work out well for the drug gangs. While Peru, Bolivia and Colombia are best suited for coca cultivation, Colombia is the easiest place to produce large quantities of coca leaf. Moving production to Peru and Bolivia is difficult because the coca plant in those countries grows at a higher altitude, and the political and cultural conditions are very different.

In 2014 Colombia regained the lead (from Peru) in the amount of land given to growing coca. The reason for this resurgence of coca growing is the government ordered halt in aerial spraying of coca crops. Satellite photos had revealed that that land used to grow coca increased 39 percent in 2014 versus 2013. That was still 35 percent less than the peak set in 2007. This increase is believed to be largely because illegal gold mining had lost its popularity (because of lower prices) and many of these rural miners returned to coca growing. But there was another problem. Accusations that the herbicide (Roundup) used to kill coca plants causes cancer has led to growing protests in rural areas and the government halted the spraying, even though there was no proof to back up the accusations. That encouraged some drug gangs to move coca production back to Colombia from less productive areas Peru and Bolivia. Spraying of coca crops had forced the gangs to replant in less productive areas in Colombia as well as across the border. About five percent of the Colombian population is involved in the drug business, mostly as small farmers producing the coca. The farmers often don't have much choice (grow the stuff or die, or try to flee). The security forces still fight a low level war out in the backcountry, seeking to end FARC and drug gang control of isolated farming communities that produce coca. To get one ton of cocaine, you need to process 250 tons of coca leaf. That ton of cocaine sells for about $2.1 million in the country of origin. But get it to a major market, like the United States, it sells for about $35 million to distributors, and for $120 million to drug users.

January 22, 2017: In Venezuela the government announced a new nation-wide anti-crime program. Few believe it will work because the police are thoroughly corrupt and the new anti-crime programs claims it will use high-tech gear (UAVs and many security cameras) that the government cannot afford and even if they could most would quickly be stolen or sold by those in charge of the new gear.

January 20, 2017: In Venezuela the head of the central bank was quietly fired. Or he may have quit. No replacement was announced. The central bank has not released any financial data since late 2015 and has scrambled through a dwindling list of actions to deal with the growing cash shortage. This has only delayed the total collapse of the economy. The state owned oil company is expected to default on its debts and it is currently so short of cash that it cannot afford to move and sell a lot of oil. At the moment about four million barrels of Venezuelan oil (worth over $150 million) is stranded because the state oil company cannot provide cash to pay port fees and taxes or what it costs for necessary maintenance.

January 19, 2017: In Venezuela the government finally got the new currency into circulation. In mid-December the government announced, without warning, that all hundred bolivar banknotes (the largest in circulation and accounting for 77 percent of all cash) were now worthless but could be turned in for new, larger denomination notes. The problem was that the new notes were not printed in Venezuela and shipments were not arriving on time and it would be weeks before enough of the new notes were available. In many parts of the country there were riots and widespread looting. There were dozens of casualties and at least ten dead. Over a thousand people were arrested as police sought to halt the looting. Nearly a thousand stores, most of them containing food, were stripped of what little they still had. Within days the government backed off and said the old notes could be used to January 2nd. That was later extended to January 20th. The hundred bolivar note is worth only about two cents on the black market. A few weeks earlier it was three cents but the inflation is spiraling out of control. In the last year the cost of buying one U.S. dollar went from 800 bolivars to over 3,500. The highest demonization of the new notes is 20,000 bolivars, which is currently worth six dollars and getting worse faster. The inflation rate at the end of 2016 was 800 percent and that is expected to double in 2017. The government blames all this on the United States and a deliberate campaign to destroy the socialist government of Venezuela.

January 18, 2017: The government has finally agreed to start formal peace talks with the ELN on February 8th once ELN releases Odin Sanchez.

January 10, 2017: In the south (Caquetá) FARC gunmen confronted a rogue FARC group attempting to leave with their weapons. There was a firefight and one of rogue FARC men was killed. This area has long been a FARC stronghold and a lot of FARC are still in the area.

January 8, 2017: In Venezuela the government increased the minimum wage 50 percent, to 41,000 bolivars a month (about $11). In the last year the minimum wage have been increased 400 percent, which has not kept up with the 800 percent inflation. The government food rations, which are supposed to be sold at a fixed price often have additional “transportation and handling” charged added. Sometimes a bribe is demanded

 

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