Colombia: Good News, Worse News


September 2, 2016: The peace deal with the FARC rebels has been agreed to (on August 24 th ) but not all the details and timetable dates for carrying out the disarmament and amnesty have not been announced yet. The FARC leadership will soon (if not already) meet (only the 10 th time they have done so in 52 years) and vote. The government has agreed to safe passage for the senior FARC commanders to travel for this. Then a nationwide vote must approve the deal and this is to take place October 2nd. Opinion polls show 50-60 percent of voters willing to approve, even though there is still a lot of bitterness about the amnesty terms. If the October vote is “yes” that will trigger implementation (not to mention a nationwide celebration). By the end of the year the 7,000 armed and 3,000 or so unarmed FARC members will 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 by the end of 2017 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.

Then there is the ELN, a smaller and more diehard leftist rebel group. About a quarter the size of FARC, ELN is waiting to see how the FARC agreement works out before entering peace talks. ELN has 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.

With FARC gone the remaining drug cartels will have to reorganize and adapt to the loss of FARC manpower and connections. Some FARC members are expected to go back to working with the cartels. That is a violation of the amnesty terms but for many FARC members their true vocation has become getting rich in the drug business, not fighting for the leftist revolution many FARC members had ceased to believe in. Some demobilized FARC will join other criminal gangs because those gangs engage in some of the same outlaw behavior (theft, extortion, smuggling) that many FARC members are familiar with and not willing to give up. That’s been the pattern in past amnesties for anti-leftist militias.

The government and the security forces are already training and planning to concentrate on the drug cartels and other outlaw groups more aggressively once FARC is disbanded. The main motivator for that is the economic revival that accompanied the fifteen year campaign to defeat FARC. Colombia now has one the most robust and fastest growing economies in South America and taking down the other criminal enterprises is essential to continued peace and prosperity. The battle against FARC has already greatly reduced the crime rate and forced many drug gangs to move to adjacent countries. One of those refuges is Venezuela, which has turned out to be a toxic sanctuary for Colombian criminals.


Venezuela is a potential problem for Colombia because of the looming government and economic collapse going on there. Colombia is already dealing with a growing flood of legal and illegal migrants from Venezuela, where GDP fell 6.2 percent in 2015, at least ten percent for 2016 and potential 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 able to get the Colombian border they cross to find what is no longer available in Venezuela. Meanwhile the Venezuelan government is producing more and more unworkable solutions. One of the recent one was to set up rural work camps where people will be forced to spend some of their time farming on farms that are idle because of government policies (high prices for farming supplies and price controls on crops produced). This plan, like similar ones in the past, are now proposed because the government is rapidly running out of cash and has lost most popular support.

At the same time the government refuses to call for international aid and in the UN its representative insists that there is no crises back home and blocks all efforts to officially put the “Venezuelan crises” on the UN agenda. Thus there is no prospect of international aid, like desperately needed food and medicine. The Venezuelan government insists there is no crises and that the current leadership can eventually make it all better. The majority of Venezuelans have made it clear they do not agree with that but since the socialist officials who caused the mess still control the security forces and courts, even a pro-reform majority in a newly elected parliament cannot change anything.

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 wrecked the economy in an attempt to keep itself in power. That effort involved diverted necessary investment in maintaining and expanding the oil production facilities and infrastructure (power, water, roads) in general. This now means that as the oil prices fell so did Venezuela’s ability to 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 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 the year. Despite the obvious popularity of such a referendum the government seems intent on preventing the recall vote anyway (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 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.

September 1, 2016: In Venezuela over a million people filled the streets of the capital and demonstrated for a new government. The government blocked foreign journalists from entering the country and state controlled mass media downplayed the size of the demonstration and accused the organizers of working for the United States. Pictures and videos of the demonstration got out because of the Internet (which governments have still not figured out how to control), cell phone cameras and lots of illegal but heavily used border crossings. The government may not be able to suppress news of the disaster they have created or solve it but, like most Venezuelans the government copes. Thus there are several hundred known, but illegal, border crossings with Colombia that Venezuela does not crack down on. Venezuela has opened all the official crossings but imposes high exit fees. It also takes a long time for border officials to check everyone to ensure that they are not smuggling and not wanted by the police (especially for opposing the government). The illegal crossings are also guarded but the fees are much lower, there are no restrictions and minimal waiting time. The illegal crossing take longer to reach (because they are in remote, thinly populated areas) and there is more risk of encountering bandits. Despite that most Venezuelans now avoid the official crossings when they must go to Colombia to get essential supplies or find work. The Colombian government hasn’t cracked down as long as the visitors are mainly peaceful. Unofficially the Colombian security forces expect the illegal visitors to cooperate when asked for information about what they saw on the way in and how things are in Venezuela. This has become a good source about what is actually happening in Venezuela and discourages criminal activity along the border.

August 29, 2016: In Colombia the nationwide ceasefire between FARC and the security forces begins without incident.

August 24, 2016: Colombia and FARC agreed on the final terms of their peace deal. Now FARC leadership must meet and vote on it as must the people of Colombia.

August 19, 2016: A Brazilian magazine published a story about a 2009 deal between Venezuela and Iran to get an ammunition plant built in Venezuela. Iran would supply technical assistance, much of the specialized equipment plus chemicals needed to produce the smokeless gunpowder (nitrocellulose) and military grade explosives. The magazine included photos of the Venezuelan documents involved. This deal was illegal because of the international arms embargo on Iran at the time. Venezuela can expect more scandals like this because it is no secret that copies of valuable (to foreign news media and intelligence agencies) Venezuelan government documents are increasingly available to anyone willing to pay. Most of the sold documents don’t get published. This sort of corruption in the Venezuelan government is nothing new and the growing poverty in Venezuelan has made government employees with access to anything valuable looking for ways to make a sale.

The Brazilian story also reminded everyone that Venezuela has also been an enthusiastic ally of Iran, and has helped Iran defy UN sanctions many times. Because of this in 2011 the U.S. imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan state oil company and has since imposed more sanctions on Venezuelan firms for similar illegal behavior. By 2010 Iran had established terrorist bases in Venezuela, from which they tried to expand to other parts of South America. That was not successful but was part of a trend. The United States had already been encountering the Iran backed Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah as one of many groups smuggling cocaine into Europe and the Middle East. Hezbollah also smuggled weapons into South America. Some of this was done with the cooperation of Cuba. Since Cuba is a tightly controlled police state, any smuggling must be done in cooperation with the secret police (which takes a share of the profits). Hezbollah has been involved in the cocaine trade since the 1990s and has shown up in South America for as long, usually involved in various illegal money making schemes (to support Islamic terrorism). Cuba has long tolerated drug smugglers, as long as they paid well. Hezbollah is mainly in it for the money, but it is believed that Iran is using these activities to collect intelligence, and develop contacts that could be useful for operations against the United States.




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