June 5, 2016:
For nearly a week angry farmers have protested or rioted throughout the country and blocked 14 major highways. At least two people have died and more than a hundred injured (a third of them police). This sort of unrest is nothing new. In the past decade the government has negotiated several agreements with farmer groups, especially in the south and southwest, to end the unrest. The main reason for the continued unrest is the government not keeping its promises, especially those regarding investing in rural areas to make life easier, and more profitable, for millions of poor farmers. The farmers also want more government subsidies (especially for fuel and farm supplies) and a curb on cheaper foreign food imports. But this would result in Colombian exports being blocked as the countries barred from selling to Colombia strike back. This would put a lot of Colombians out of work, but the farmers are not concerned about that. In 2013 similar demonstrations spread to the capital and that required the government to move 50,000 troops into the capital to patrol the streets and break up demonstrations. The free trade agreements are popular with most voters because they provide more export oriented jobs and lower prices for all Colombians. The farmers believe too many Colombians ignore the long list of rural problems that never seem to get fixed. The big problem is government inaction when it comes to maintaining law and order. FARC and various other outlaw groups (like drug gangs) have long felt free to steal land wherever they could. The farmers are demanding land reform to solve this. The main problem now is that many wealthy rural land owners now hold this land, and use lawyers, gunmen and corruptible politicians to resist attempts to return any of it to people it was originally stolen from. The private armies in the countryside are part of a larger criminal economy that has long been a major part of Colombian life. Still fueled by the cocaine trade, the gangs also rely on smuggling and more mundane crime (theft, extortion and whatever they can get away with). The angry farmers and obvious crimes committed against them were a major reason for the undeclared war that began in the late 1940s. Eventually referred to as "La Violencia" (The Violence) has since then left over half a million dead, and millions injured or displaced. Millions more simply fled the country, either into neighboring states, or distant destinations like the U.S. or Europe. La Violencia had many causes but was basically a bloody struggle between leftists and conservatives. There was a lull in the late 1950s and early 60s, when moderate leftists and conservatives worked out a compromise. But the worldwide upsurge in leftist activism in the 1960s reignited La Violencia. The leftist FARC and ELN rebels got another boost in the 1970s when cocaine became a big business, and the leftists used their muscle to protect the drug gangs from the government. Half a century after the peacemaking compromises that ended the first round of La Violencia, the conservative government is trying to cut a similar deal with the leftist rebels. But FARC and the smaller ELN, are taking their time trying to negotiate a deal that allows them to keep much of what they have stolen, including rural land. FARC and ELN always said they were fighting to get justice for farmers while at the same time being a major source of the injustices farmers demanded be put right. The Colombian government made their big comeback after 2000 by concentrating on protecting the population, which made it possible to revive the economy. FARC's guns and slogans could not compete with this but the farmers feel they are still being ignored.
The government is making progress to address the fundamental problems. For example a new commander of the national police took over in February with orders to finally deal with the corruption in the largest (180,000 personnel) law enforcement organization in the country. This corruption is a major reason why things are such a mess out in the rural areas. So far 1,400 corrupt cops have been fired and there is already evidence to get thousands more removed. The key to making this work is finding replacements or are not corrupt and likely to stay that way. So far the new attitudes in the National Police (fear among the corrupt and assertiveness among the non-corrupt) has led to a growing number of “untouchable” criminal operations and organizations getting shut down.
Venezuela Reinvents La Violencia
Neighboring Venezuela is having a difficult time dealing with a collapsing economy and rulers who threaten civil war if they are removed. Unlike Colombia, after World War II Venezuela prospered and was a peace because of massive oil income. But now shortages of essentials (food, medicine fuel and electricity) in Venezuela are widespread and getting worse. Inflation is running at 500 percent a year and that is expected to more than double by the end of 2016. The shortages have led to growing anger towards the leftist government and the resolutely socialist president Maduro. As a result the crime rate, already the highest in the Americas, has gotten worse because the security forces have been ordered to concentrate on protecting the government from the people. Maduro’s approval rating has fallen to record lows (less than 25 percent). That approval rating was 33 percent in February, but the growing success at blocking reforms has angered even more people. Nearly 70 percent say Maduro should quit before the end of 2016. Many of the socialist true-believers are losing patience and a growing number are quietly urging the military (now run my “good socialists”) to do the country and themselves a favor by stepping in and removing Maduro and his unpopular (mainly for being inept and corrupt) government from power. That offer is apparently still being considered in part because opposition politicians are discreetly giving the same advice.
The new opposition Congress wants 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 the year. Despite the obvious popularity of such a referendum the government seems intent on preventing the recall vote anyway it can. Maduro’s current term does not end until 2019 and Maduro wants until then to make things all better. Most voters believe he will only make things worse and the growing popular unrest has, in some parts of the country, already morphed into what looks and feels like insurrection. Most Venezuelans understand that government incompetence and corruption are the main causes of all their economic woes but these are two items the government will not even discuss, much less admit are a problem to be solved.
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 and the prosperity Venezuela had long enjoyed. Maduro does understand power and in an effort to maintain control of an increasingly hostile population Maduro turned to police state methods. He now openly threatens armed resistance to any efforts to remove him from power. So far the opposition controlled Congress has been blocked from removing Maduro legally by Supreme Court rulings that these actions are unconstitutional. This comes as no surprise because in 2015 Maduro realized he could lose control of the legislature and just before the elections that did just that ordered the outgoing (and leftist controlled) Congress to appoint enough additional leftist Supreme Court judges to enable the government to block an opposition majority in Congress from doing anything legally to remove Maduro from power. So far the new leftist Supreme Court has performed as expected and even granted Maduro the power to rule by decree (without any involvement by the legislature) in order to deal with the economic crisis. Now the opposition legislature must either find legal ways to deal with an outlaw president and supreme court or see the country slide into anarchy. Some in the opposition believe that a majority of justices can be persuaded to do the right thing. Less optimistic opposition leaders are trying to convince leftist generals to solve the crises by illegal (but very popular to a majority of Venezuelans) means.
Meanwhile Maduro’s political subordinates and allies are upset. These supporters grew rich from stealing and dealing since 1999. It’s widely known that the family of the late president Chavez became fabulously wealthy (over $4 billion). There are many ways for people with the right connections to get rich. Bribes from drug gangs keep the cocaine flowing through Venezuelan ports and air fields plus simply stealing much of the money under your control. Maduro has been trying to build a popular militia loyal to him and the ruling party, but the country is running out of money to pay for enough loyalty. A lot of these corrupt, but now wealthy, officials are fleeing the country and hoping they can find sanctuary (from eventual prosecution) somewhere.
May 28, 2016: In the northeast (Norte de Santander province) ELN released three journalists they had seized over the last week near the Venezuelan border. Local political and religious leaders were able to negotiate the release of the three. Apparently the seizures were a mistake, largely because the teenage ELN gunmen were often unsupervised and it took several days before older ELN leaders could get to the scene and sort things out. The journalists later admitted that it was largely their fault because they ignored government warnings to avoid travel into those areas. But they did get a firsthand look at ELN and reported that there were a lot of teenage members who were opposed to a peace deal and believed they were defending the people. The reality is that ELN has evolved into rural bandits that survive via cash from kidnapping and extortion. Apparently it is common for many of these teenagers, if they survive into their 20s, to leave once they realize what is really going on.
May 22, 2016: Canada announced willingness to join (along with Mexico) a UN peacekeeping force that would police implementation of the FARC peace deal. The government fears FARC would cheat and FARC fears that once they disarm the government will not protect them from Colombians seeking vengeance for decades of FARC violence.
May 15, 2016: FARC finally agreed to dismiss all armed members age 14 or younger. FARC is still resisting dismissing those who are 15-17 years old. Back in early 2015 FARC had agreed to stop recruiting anyone younger than 18. Getting FARC to dismiss these younger members proved more difficult. For a decade now FARC has become more dependent on kidnapping and brainwashing teenagers (and younger children) to be fighters. This sort of thing has made FARC very unpopular in rural areas where the leftists used to enjoy wide support. Because of all this, FARC was willing to negotiate an end to the half-century of armed rebellion and become a political party. FARC never offered to negotiate its disbanding before and offering to stop recruiting kids means that, if they actually observe this ban, their numbers will shrink even faster. FARC went along with this largely because this sort of thing is enormously popular in Europe, where many leftists still support FARC. That support, and the European sanctuary for many FARC leaders, was threatened by the continued FARC use of “child soldiers”. Such pressure also persuaded FARC to agree to a national referendum on the treaty. FARC opposed 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.