Colombia is at peace with the dismantling of FARC. But despite the nearly two decades of effort to eliminate FARC there is still the second largest leftist rebel group (ELN, a third the size of FARC) that is willing to talk peace as well. At this point the ELN is trying to get some kind of ceasefire, without much luck. In response they have offered to declare a unilateral one, for 90 days, to accommodate the coming visit by the pope (the first one from South America). ELN is smaller because its members are more into the goal of a communist dictatorship for Colombia. But Colombians have noted what happened when that was tried in Venezuela and, as a result, ELN has lost most of the popular support it once had. ELN has become a coalition of leftist gangsters, some of them more into it for the money than the politics. The ELN understands that if it does not make peace the security forces will probably hunt down and kill or capture most of them.
Meanwhile the Colombian drug gangs and the criminal organizations in general are not interested in negotiating and are still thriving, often by recruiting some of the former FARC personnel. All these leftist rebels got going in the 1960s but by the 1990s were rapidly losing popular support. The gangsters (drug and otherwise) never had much public support to begin with and preferred to be feared. These gangs even corrupted the leftist rebels because after 2000 the drug gangs and leftist rebels basically merged in many parts of the country, and the war was increasingly about money, not ideology. A new reform government took advantage of this and organized an offensive that sharply reduced crime and gave the economy a chance to become the most successful in South America. But there is still a lot of popular support for the gangster life, especially among young unemployed men. That will be a lot more difficult to deal with. This can be seen already in how reluctant FARC leaders are about helping to curb the drug gangs. Many FARC members that surrendered still have links to drug gangs and the temptation is always there to return to the outlaw life.
After more than half a century of Colombia being chaotic country next to peaceful and prosperous Venezuela, the roles are reversed. Colombia has become peaceful and prosperous while neighboring Venezuela has officially turned into a socialist dictatorship. With the help of Cuban advisors and diehard, discredited, unelected and now outlaw Venezuelan socialist politicians the elected legislature was recently replaced by an unelected dictatorship that will do whatever is can to remain in power. Cuba, Iran, Russia, China and Colombian drug cartels all see this as an opportunity and will do what they can to keep the new dictatorship in power. For that they expect to be compensated. Venezuela’s neighbors have all condemned the new dictatorship but cannot agree on what to do about it. Neighboring countries are concerned about the increasing lawlessness in Venezuela and how the place has become a sanctuary for drug gangs, Islamic terrorists and all sorts of outlaw activity. Adding to the border control problem is that fact that most of the people coming out of Venezuela are simply seeking to escape the hunger, unemployment and violence that have become the norm there.
Prosperity and democracy died in Venezuela because of a decade of corruption and inept government created by the radical populist president Hugo Chavez. This former soldier got elected in 1999 and died of cancer in March 2013. Along the way Chavez trashed the Venezuelan economy and democracy. His handpicked replacement, Nicolas Maduro, was even worse. The old Chavez dream of Venezuela becoming a socialist dictatorship supported by oil revenue eventually faded along with cash reserves and the national credit rating. Venezuela currently owes about $100 billion for foreign lenders, mainly in China and Russia. Maduro has put priority on making scheduled payments on that secured foreign debt because if they don’t the credit rating is damaged while China and Russia become less helpful.
While most Venezuelans want reconstruction (under a non-socialist government) rather than civil war the leftists still in the government chose to risk all and stay in power, even at the risk of further chaos and suffering. President Maduro first tried to stay in power by manipulating the law and use a Supreme Court filled with recent pro-government appointees to try and outlaw democracy and grant him dictatorial power. This was opposed by most Venezuelans and in response Maduro staged a coup by forcing a July 30 vote (rigged by the government) to select 545 Maduro supporters for a Constituent Assembly that will “legally” revise the constitution and make Maduro a legal dictator. The armed forces leaders openly backed Maduro on this and it was made clear that no compromise was possible. The opposition organized a national vote of their own on July 18th and an overwhelming number of voters opposed the Maduro plans but since Maduro controls the security forces (he selected the current military and police generals for their loyalty and willingness to be bought and stay bought) massive peaceful demonstrations had no effect.
What Maduro has done is clearly illegal but he feels the need to change the current constitution to survive. According to the original constitution only the parliament (an anti-Maduro national assembly) can perform a lot of key functions. But the Supreme Court ruled that the current parliament was illegal. The parliament describes these actions as a coup and most Venezuelans agree. 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 new judges to the Supreme Court to block any efforts to remove him from power. The legislature and the government were not able to agree on a compromise solution for any of this and Venezuelans were spending most of their time coping with continued economic collapse.
Now Venezuelans must either submit to a Maduro dictatorship, support a civil war or flee the country. It is unclear how many Venezuelans would fight and Maduro and his followers are betting on being able to suppress whatever armed opposition develops. The increased visibility of Cuban political, police and military advisors indicates that any armed opposition will be expertly and ruthlessly dealt with. For Maduro suppressing popular opposition is the easy part.
A more difficult problem is the economic wreckage he helped create. Venezuela has not got enough cash to support a police state and feed the population. Because of the coup Maduro is facing economic sanctions by the United States (the largest customer for Venezuelan oil and largest supplier of all sorts of essentials) and most other nations in the Americas and the industrialized world. Sanctions include bans on obtaining equipment and technology for reviving the Venezuelan oil industry. But at the moment Maduro does not have the cash to pay for that and credit is all used up as well. The UN and all of the neighbors condemn Maduro but the international community is unwilling to do much more than that. Some South American nations have expressed a willingness to join in on sanctions. In part that is because it is no secret that millions of sick and hungry Venezuelans are preparing to flee to neighboring countries, mainly Colombia and Brazil. Many will find they cannot get to and across the border because of health or financial problems, but this demonstrates how desperate the situation has become.
Despite diverting most food and other consumer goods towards the security forces did not prevent a growing number of soldiers and policemen from complaining that their families were going hungry, often because one soldier or policemen was under pressure to help get food for his extended family and was unable to do so. Commanders are seeking solutions to this growing problem but there is no easy fix. What many commanders do is informally tolerate their subordinates stealing from any Venezuelans that can be seen as Maduro opponents. This now includes most Venezuelans so there are plenty of potential victims. Commanders who are caught doing this often get away with it by explaining it is an effective way to reduce open opposition to the Maduro government. The new leadership of the security forces was selected mainly for loyalty not competence in military of police work.
The Cuban advisors have solutions for all these problems and it includes a violent and bloody imposition of universal social control. In Cuba this led to thousands of deaths and the continued use of prisons full of people considered politically unreliable. Cuba would, like most dictatorships, tolerate organized crime if the gangsters followed orders and helped keep the government in power and the people under control. Maduro is already doing that but some of his popular militias have turned against him because the food distribution system is now controlled by the military and many officers do not regard the popular militia as loyal or deserving of scarce food supplies.
In the four months since it became clear what Maduro had planned there were nearly 400 demonstrations a week. Over 140 people died and at least 5,000 were arrested and at least a third of them are still imprisoned. Now it gets worse. Since the July 30 “vote” the number of Venezuelans fleeing the country has reached over 20,000 a day. Most head for Colombia, which is scrambling to cope with the surge of refugees. Over a million Venezuelans have already fled, most in the last few years and most of these people with skills and some money. The next few million Venezuelan refugees won’t be so welcome because they will be those who could not afford to get out earlier and are now driven by hunger and fear of the new police state. Many Colombians on the border are optimistic mainly because they are familiar with Venezuelans, often because some kin are over there. A shared language and culture make it easier, at least in the border areas, to absorb the influx. But the number expected is larger than Colombia has ever had to deal with, especially in a short period of time. Cuban advisors point out that this rids the new dictatorship of potential opponents and reduces the number of people to be controlled. The Cuban advisors are less public about the problem of dealing with long land borders in rural areas of the country that have always been porous. Dictators prefer short, well-guarded borders or, preferably, no land borders at all.
For Maduro the payoff is all that oil and the fact that China and Russia have loaned him so much money that it is in their interest to provide the tech and technicians to get the Venezuelan oil facilities going again. China and Russia will do that, for a price. That is being negotiated. Iran and Cuba also provide special skills and are also negotiating their fee. That’s how a dictatorship works. You steal what you can and pay what you must. Since 2013 Venezuelan GDP has dropped 35 percent and per-capita GDP is down 40 percent. Things will get worse before they get better even with a police state. That’s because the new government must put priority on keeping the government employees, especially the ones with guns, satisfied and content to follow orders. You don’t need a Cuban advisor to point that out but the Cubans provide practical advice on how to get it done as quickly as possible.
Maduro has a bigger problem because most Venezuelans, especially most of those who supported Chavez, oppose this attempt at forming what amounts to a military dictatorship. Part of the problem that the opposition includes a lot of lawyers and members (until recently) of the Maduro government. The lawyers and senior officials who oppose Maduro (openly or not) have assisted in getting a lot of documentary evidence (of the corruption and illegal behavior of Maduro and his supporters) out of the country. This evidence is going to be used to indict Maduro for all sorts of crimes and justify all manner of sanctions. Maduro must be able to sell his oil and do business internationally to survive. Maduro needs a minimum number of loyal (out of fear or greed) supporters to form and operate a police state. Despite support from Cuba, Iran, China and Russia, it is not a sure thing.
August 15, 2017: In Colombia the FARC disarmament process was officially completed today as the last of 8,123 weapons and 1.3 million rounds of ammo (and other explosive devices) was taken from the demobilization camps by the UN observers. The weapons and ammo will be destroyed. The personnel demobilization ended in late June with 6,803 FARC members showing up with 7,132 weapons. These weapons were locked up in containers under UN supervision and some will be melted down for a peace monument. Some FARC members still retained 700 weapons which were used to maintain order at the 26 camps where FARC members assembled for demobilization. These 700 weapons were surrendered on August 1st when the camps were turned into civilian retraining centers and security became a police matter. The demobilized FARC also announced a name change. The group would still be known as “FARC” but that would now mean “Revolutionary Alternative Force of Colombia” rather than “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.”
August 7, 2017: In the southwest a UN team recovering an old FARC weapons cache (with the help of demobilized FARC who had operated in this area) was ambushed by unidentified (as yet) gunmen. One member of the UN team was wounded and the armed team escort returned fire and the attackers fled.
August 6, 2017: In northern Venezuela a group of men in army uniforms attacked an army base outside Valencia and stole a quantity of weapons and equipment. It later turned out that only four of the 20 attackers were currently on active duty and most of the others were former members of the security forces in army uniforms. The government said it was a coup attempt planned by the United States.
July 30, 2017: A national poll before the Constituent Assembly “vote” today indicated only 23 percent approved of a Constituent Assembly. At the same time only 19 percent of Venezuelans believed a Constituent Assembly could solve the current problems. It did not make any difference because the only candidates allowed were those who supported Maduro. So naturally Maduro won.
July 28, 2017: Avianca airlines in Colombia joined a growing list of foreign airlines and shut down its operations in Venezuela. Aeromexico did so a year ago and most major airlines in the Western hemisphere followed. This is something that began in 2014 because the government would not let the airlines get money out of the country to pay for operating foreign flights into and out of Venezuela. The extreme foreign currency restrictions were deemed necessary because the shrinking economy was providing less foreign currency to buy essential imports of food and consumer goods. Air Canada was the first of many foreign airlines that halted operations in Venezuela until foreign firms could again move cash out (mostly to pay for foreign goods and services, not profits). Cuba, since the 1960s, has cheated foreign companies out of billions of dollars by never letting them get their money or assets out of the country and, in most cases, eventually simply stealing the company assets in Cuba. Many companies operating in Venezuela have lost money in Cuba years ago and have not forgotten, so Venezuela won’t have the opportunity to steal as much as Cuba did. Not many Venezuelans can afford to use air travel anymore and the government officials can make special arrangements. At this point there are still ten major foreign airlines (American Airlines, Air Europa, Air France, Caribbean Airlines, Copa Airlines, Cubana, Iberia, Latin American Wings, Tame, TAP and Turkish Airlines) flying in and out of Venezuela, often only occasionally.