Colombia: Peace At Home, War Next Door


October 1, 2015: The peace talks with FARC are not finished. Despite the September 23rd breakthrough announcement both sides agree that there are still unresolved details on the amnesty. These include jail time for the worst offenders and which FARC leaders would be allowed to lead political parties and run for office. The government and FARC agreed that these remaining issues would be resolved within six months. FARC, however, would not say when the war would actually end and FARC forces disarmed. The FARC leaders did say there would be no apologies only that mistakes were made in the heat of battle. That may not be enough because the government still has a problem because the majority of Colombian voters will not support amnesty. The government is trying to convince the majority of voters that this compromise is worth it. The politicians believe that a small minority of voters will never compromise on the punishments issue and that the majority can be convinced that it is not worth it to endanger a peace deal over this.

In media appearances the FARC leaders come across as unrepentant and uncompromising. This does not help their cause among the Colombian voters. Most Colombians also fear that many FARC members will, after the amnesty deal is done, simply become gangsters and keep on doing what they have been doing. That includes making lots of money via drugs, extortion and other crimes. Non-political gangs are still a major problem in Colombia and there are several of them with over a thousand members each. Often referred to as cartels, these gangs handle drugs as well as a lot of other criminal activities. Some of these gangs have made at known that they would welcome experienced FARC men as new members. Some of these gangs already work with FARC.

FARC also demands more prosecutions of soldiers and police for crimes committed in combat. The government position is that they already prosecute and if FARC has specific evidence of crimes they should present it. FARC is trying cope with its growing unpopularity (and popular opposition to amnesty) by calling for more action against corruption and the influence of gangsters in politics. This doesn’t get much traction inside Colombia because most Colombians have personal experience with FARC efforts (often violent) to manipulate elections and force elected officials to cooperate. Rural Colombians are also demanding that FARC stop planting landmines (which FARC promised to do but didn’t comply) and help remove existing mines.

With the amnesty deadlock now officially handled the smaller ELN (about a third the size of FARC) is willing to begin peace talks. ELN says serious negotiations will begin once they have assurances that there will be amnesty for all. Preliminary talks have already begun in Ecuador. Meanwhile ELN is still quite violent and is concentrating its attacks (and extortion efforts) on the oil industry and electricity producers.

GDP growth in the second quarter was three percent, slightly higher than predicted. About 18 percent of GDP comes from oil exports. For most of the last half century Venezuela was more prosperous and much more peaceful than Colombia. 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 2013 and was succeeded by a less charismatic aide who has made matter worse. Now Venezuela is on the verge of economic collapse, revolution, dictatorship or worse. The Venezuelan government blames the chronic (and growing) shortages (of food and consumer goods in general) on the smuggling of subsidized items to Colombia for resale. The reality is that Venezuela has wrecked its own economy by trying to impose a communist style planned (by the state) economy. For over 70 years these ideas failed spectacularly in Russia, East Europe, China and several other countries. Cuba and North Korea currently create privation not prosperity by continuing to pursue the dream of more efficient state control. Neighboring Colombia has much less oil, but a free economy and is much more prosperous. More Venezuelans are noticing that and the Venezuelan government needs to invent new distractions to keep the peace at home.

Venezuela recently admitted that its GDP has shrunk four percent in 2014 but still refused to release any GDP data for 2015. Foreign analysts see a nine percent GDP decline in 2015 and nearly as much in 2016. Inflation is over a hundred percent (and rapidly increasing) and the Venezuelan currency (the bolivar) buys less and less. Price controls in Venezuela make food and other items much cheaper to buy than the market prices prevailing in neighboring countries. Smugglers point out that it is often more profitable to smuggle Venezuelan food into Colombia than to move Colombian cocaine into Venezuela. Government officials have also taken the lead in plundering government reserves of foreign currency. The biggest offenders in exploiting the official (far below the black market) exchange rate between dollars and the local currency are government officials. The shortages created by all this and the increased printing of Venezuelan currency have pushed inflation up to more than 500 percent a year. Thus since May the Venezuelan currency (the bolivar) has collapsed in value against the dollar (the most common foreign currency used in Venezuela). The black market rate for a dollar is now over 800 bolivars, way up from 400 in May. In 2013 it was under 30 bolivars. Before the 1999 socialist revolution inflation was about 20 percent and you could buy a dollar for six bolivars. The average inflation in neighboring countries in 1999 was under 15 percent. The official exchange rate is 6.3 bolivars per dollar but that is only available to government officials and well-connected businessmen. The Venezuelan government seems paralyzed. The December 6th elections are going to be interesting because the current government has the support of less than 20 percent of the voters. The government is cracking down on opposition political parties but that may not be enough to avoid a vote that would either remove the current government or trigger a coup and imposition of a leftist dictatorship.

Along the 2,850 kilometers long Venezuelan border there are hundreds of heavily used smuggling trails. Some of those in northeastern Colombia have been particularly active. Venezuela began closing the official crossings in this area last August but is now talking peace and opening the closed border posts. The economic collapse in Venezuela and the inability of the government there to do anything about it has led to Venezuela blaming Colombia and closing several major border crossings in northeast Colombia. Many on both sides of the border see this as more political theater than representing a real issue. The Venezuelan government is trying to distract Venezuelans from the collapsing economy Ambassadors have been recalled and Venezuela is expelling thousands of Colombians who live on the Venezuelan side of the border.  Over 20,000 Colombians have left since the expulsion order on August 21st.  Venezuela also blames its record high murder rate (and most other crime) on Colombian gangs, even though most of this crime occurs far from the border where there are few Colombians and most of the perpetrators who are caught turn out to be Venezuelans. Nevertheless soldiers and police were ordered to seek out Colombian gangsters operating on the Venezuelan side of the border and some were found. Some were taken alive while other died resisting arrest.

Colombia and the United States also accuse Venezuela of becoming a major transit point for illegal drugs coming out of Colombia and then onto world markets (especially the U.S. and Europe). Leftist (FARC) rebels have about half their forces operating along the Venezuelan border. Most of the rest use the Panama or Ecuador borders, areas where FARC is needed (and well paid) to assist drug production and smuggling.

September 28, 2015: In Venezuela there were five grenade attacks over the weekend on police. These were all over the country and nearly twenty people were wounded.

September 27, 2015: The government called on the ELN to begin peace talks, now that a deal has been made with FARC.

Venezuela and Guyana have agreed to resume normal diplomatic relations. Venezuela recalled its ambassador in July to protest Guyana exploring for oil and natural gas offshore. The hostility escalated because Guyana tolerated Venezuelan fuel smugglers.

September 23, 2015: The government and FARC announce a breakthrough in their negotiations with a compromise on amnesty. The government will not insist on as much prosecution of FARC members as most Colombians demand while FARC will accept some punishment. The final agreement is expected within six months and FARC is to be disarmed 60 days after that.  

Venezuela is accused of sending river gunboats into the territory of neighboring Guyana.

September 22, 2015: Venezuela has sent thousands of additional troops to the Guyana border. This is mostly about the smuggling, especially fuel (which is heavily subsidized in Venezuela) that is worth a lot more in any neighboring country. Venezuela also has a long-running dispute with Guyana and claims 60 percent of its much smaller neighbor. Some see this latest move as a revival of a 2005 "reunification" campaign that involved the Guyana territory as well as islands in the Dutch West Indies (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao). Added to that there is the claim on some disputed Colombian territorial waters, and very flimsy claims on Caribbean islands like Trinidad and Tobago. There was some actions back then, like violations of Dutch air space and territorial waters, including illegal over flights by military aircraft. In addition Venezuelan authorities urged residents of the islands to form "Bolivarian" cells, in support of eventual "reunification." The Netherlands responded by reinforcing their West Indian garrison (with consisted of a small naval contingent, a battalion of infantry, and some helicopters) with a flight of F-16s. The Dutch government also took the matter up with the European Union, and Britain (given that some other territories on which Venezuela is laying claims, such as Trinidad, Tobago and Guyana, are members of the British Commonwealth) and France (which also has overseas territories in the Caribbean). No sane man would try to use force to settle these territorial disputes. But Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez increasingly seemed capable of anything. Going after Guyana would not only bring the British in, but probably the United States as well. That's because over a quarter million Guyanese live New York City and local politicians would feel obliged to answer pleas from her constituents to do something. The population of Guyana itself is only 750,000, but the country is the size of Great Britain. The 60 percent of Guyana Venezuela claims is thinly populated. Venezuela soon backed off but this aggression was not forgotten in Guyana. This made tolerating Venezuelan fuel smugglers very popular. But the recent discovery of large oil and natural gas deposits off the coast, and Venezuelan claims on that has made Guyana suspicious of any Venezuelan threats.

September 21, 2015: Venezuela has agreed to exchange ambassadors with Colombia again and ease up on the border closings. In August Venezuela increased border security. Trade was interrupted and people on both sides of the border were unhappy with all this increased security.

September 18, 2015: In southwest Colombia (Cauca province) troops clashed with a group of ELN and killed six of the leftist rebels.

In the northeast about fifteen Venezuelan troops crossed the border in pursuit of a man on a motorcycle who had tried to sneak into Venezuela on a smuggling path. The Venezuelan troops drove about a kilometer into Colombia. The man they were pursuing abandoned his motorcycle and fled on foot. The Venezuelan troops burned his motorcycle then got back on their truck and returned to their side of the border.

September 17, 2015: In the northeast a Venezuelan Su-30 fighter crashed near the border while pursuing a small airplane apparently trying to cross the border illegally. The two man crew of the Su-30 died. The aircraft they were pursuing got away, after entering Venezuela from the Caribbean and apparently heading for Colombia. Drug smugglers are suspected. Venezuela bought 24 new Su-30 jet fighters from Russia in 2006. These were given to the army, not the air force because of loyalty issues. Pilots were selected mainly for loyalty. Venezuela is seeking to buy another twelve Su-30s.

September 14, 2015: In the northeast (Norte de Santander) ELN ambushed and killed three soldiers. One of the soldiers was dismembered and burned. This is in the area where ELN has been very active attacking oil facilities. There have been about 50 such attacks so far this year and nearly 130 against civilians (in an effort to intimidate those who oppose ELN).

September 13, 2015: In the northeast (Arauca) an ELN roadside bomb wounded two civilians.

September 5, 2015: In central Colombia (Meta) soldiers clashed with FARC leaving four rebels dead and three wounded. The FARC casualties were from a group that has been active in attacking oil facilities.




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