Colombia: Death Watch For Venezuela


August 2, 2015: Unable to get government agreement on a mutual ceasefire, FARC gave in and declared another unilateral ceasefire and the government then agreed to reduce its air attacks. Peace talks have resumed but are still stalled over amnesty, which most Colombians oppose. The government has told FARC that time is running out because the majority of Colombian voters will not support amnesty. The government has announced that it expects to have a final peace deal, or officially failed negotiations, by November (when the current FARC ceasefire expires). 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.

In response to all these demands FARC is trying to focus on renewed demands for a Truth Commission. This has been tried before in Colombia. A decade ago, when the anti-leftist militias made peace with the government some former militia leaders, under pressure to confess their many sins (committed before they accepted an amnesty deal), called for FARC and ELN leaders to join with them in a "truth commission" like operation. The leftist rebels refused. South Africa pioneered the "truth commission" angle in the 1990s, where bad guys only got amnesty if they admitted the bad things they had done in the past. Guilt and the desire for revenge is always a problem when you try to use amnesty to end a bloody insurrection. It's a particular problem in Colombia, where the violence has been going on for several generations. Back in 2006 leftist rebels like FARC and ELN ignored the calls for a truth commission. Now a growing number of FARC leaders, faced with a majority of Colombians calling for prosecution of the more violent FACR leaders, are warming to the concept of a truth commission but only if it includes members of the government and the members of anti-leftist militias who already surrendered under the 2006 amnesty deal. Many Colombians like the idea of a truth commission but still want the more notorious of the FARC killers and kidnappers punished.

FARC has other image problems, like the one resulting from a June 21st attack in the southwest (Narino province). FARC bombed an of oil pipeline causing a large oil spill that got into a river and contaminated the water supply for thousands of people downstream. FARC gunmen also stopped a tanker truck and dumped its cargo into a river to cut the water supply for the local population. Although FARC quickly backed off on halting water trucks, they could do nothing about the long-term damage from the spilled oil. Now it is a month later and over 20,000 people are still depending on trucked in water because the spilled oil is still contaminating local water supplies. This is because nearly a million liters (over 410,000 gallons) got out of the break FARC put in the pipeline before the pipeline could be shut down and repaired. FARC prefers not to discuss this situation but the problem is getting more play in the media so FRAC has to deal with the blowback whether they want to or not.

While the Colombian economy has been doing well (best performance in South America for the last few years) the plunging oil prices since 2013 have had a growing impact. In the last year the value of the local currency (peso) has declined 36 percent against the dollar. That has made Colombian exports more expensive to foreign customers. This has cut economic growth and increased inflation (to five percent). The Colombian stock market is down 16 percent so far this year. Since oil constituted nearly half the value of exports, the decline (50 percent) in the oil price has meant the government has less money to spend on rebuilding infrastructure and providing other services. Moreover the government borrowed lots of dollars overseas when oil was worth twice what it is today. These loans have to be repaid and there is less oil money to do that. This is forcing the government to be more efficient and innovative, because most Colombians now expect it. The population is quite proud of the economic growth of the last 15 years. In 2000 the country was a wreck politically and economically. Back then new leaders were elected who used American aid to revamp the security forces and that led to less corruption, a continuing string of defeats for drug gangs, leftist rebels and criminals of all sorts and that led to economic growth and a better life for most Colombians. Now it all appears to be in danger with leftist rebels stalling on a peace deal and still trying to wreck the economy. As for the low oil price, blaming the United States doesn’t work as well as it used to, especially since many Colombians understand that the low oil price is mainly about the feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In neighboring Venezuela the low oil price is having more catastrophic impact. This year oil accounts for over 90 percent of Venezuelan exports. In 1999 oil only accounted for half of exports but since then a new socialist government took over and wrecked the economy in an attempt to keep the majority of voters happy.  That effort has failed in a spectacular fashion and that worries Colombia.

Because Venezuela depends so much on imports and foreign loans economists and financial experts outside the country can use publically available data to see how Venezuela is doing. The consensus is that the Venezuelan government is selling everything it has to keep imports (which have been halved since 2013) coming in the hope that somehow oil prices will rise again. This strategy can only last through early 2016. By then billions of dollars in mandatory loan payments come due for previous government borrowing from foreign banks. If those payments are not made Venezuela can no longer borrow and essential imports (food and medicine) will fall to levels that will cause starvation and the collapse of what is left of the medical system. Colombia fears that the apparently desperate and determined Venezuelan government might do something extreme, like starting a war with Colombia to distract angry Venezuelans from their hunger and privation. The leftist government has long blamed Colombia and the United States for their problems but without ever presenting any proof. Meanwhile the credit default swaps (a form of market based “insurance” on bonds and loans) activity for Venezuelan debt shows that most owners of Venezuelan debt (bonds and other loans) believe default and economic collapse is likely by 2016 at the latest.

The basic problem is that Venezuela imports 70 percent of its goods and years of price controls and rationing have corrupted the economy and driven many legitimate businesses into bankruptcy. Spending money you don’t have catches up with you eventually. Smuggling is a major problem and the government sent over 30,000 soldiers and police to the Colombian border and tightened up border crossing security. At most this means the smugglers have to pay more in bribes to get cheap oil out and all manner of consumer goods in or out. Many Venezuelans believe that most of the smuggling is controlled by military and police commanders who share in the profits. All this sustains a black market that most Venezuelans, dependent on low-paid (in local currency) jobs cannot afford. These Ven*ezuelans depend on the government subsidized food provided under a rationing system. That has been corrupted as well and the government tried to implement a system of finger printing all those with ration cards in order to prevent fraud and theft but that didn’t work.  Despite several crackdowns on smuggling the illegal goods are still getting across the border. The government knows that growing popular anger at shortages of basic goods is more of a danger than some army and police commanders upset because of reduced bribe income.

August 1, 2015: In central Colombia (Tolima province) a soldier was killed in a clash with FARC gunmen.

July 31, 2015: In southeastern Venezuela (Bolivar State) there was an early morning incident where hundreds of locals broke into a food warehouse seeking milk, rice and flour. These staples are increasingly in short supply because of the government taking control of the food distribution system (including major retail outlets). The local and national government blamed the warehouse looting, which spread and turned violent when police arrived, leaving one person dead and over 60 arrested, on the political opposition. No one who was there believes that but since the state has taken control of most mass media outlets, people in other parts of the country only hear the government version of events. However the truth gets around eventually, using the Internet and cell phones, both of which are uncensored.

July 30, 2015: The peace talks with FARC resumed in Cuba.

July 29, 2015: A Venezuelan border crossing was closed for several hours because over a hundred Colombian traders on the Venezuelan side of the border rioted when they heard that a Colombian smuggler had been shot dead by Venezuelan police on one of the many smuggling trails (crossing the rural border) in the area. This smuggling of cheaper, subsidized Venezuelan goods into Colombia is very profitable for the Colombian traders and smugglers and the Venezuelans providing the goods (often stolen) or taking bribes to not interfere.

July 27, 2015: In the north (outside the capital Bogota) police seized 330 kg (726 pounds) of explosives that, upon investigation, was traced to FARC. This seizure is expected to reduce the incidence of bombings in the capital. Even with FARC observing a ceasefire, they might have sold the explosives to some other anti-government group (like ELN, gangsters or drug cartel).

July 25, 2015: The government again agreed to halt most air attacks against FARC. This was in response to FARC resuming their ceasefire on the 20th and extending it to November. The government expects FARC to halt its attacks on infrastructure (especially oil pipeline and electricity distribution systems). FARC had broken their five month old ceasefire on May 22nd. That was because the government was still actively going after FARC. The government had tried to reciprocate and on March 12 announced that the air force would cease “non-emergency” air raids against FARC for 30 days. The government made clear that the air force would still conduct air attacks if ground troops got into trouble with FARC gunmen. Ground patrols continued. In early April the government extended for another month its suspension of air attacks against FARC. Aerial surveillance and ground operations continued. FARC was disappointed with the government response to their ceasefire (less aggressive operations) rather than a government ceasefire. Without a complete ceasefire FARC operations were being restricted by the security forces and FARC seemed to accept that in order to keep the peace negotiations going.  In mid-April FARC said it would ignore recent clashes with soldiers and continue its ceasefire. But in return it demanded that the army to not attack FARC bases and personnel. The government responded that there had been nearly twenty clashes involving FARC so far this year and it was believed that FARC was using all the ceasefire talk as cover for illegal activities. Because of that and the continued clashes the military resumed its air attacks on FARC camps in late April. FARC insists that all these ceasefire violations were either accidents or FARC personnel defending themselves. Meanwhile ELN, a smaller version of FARC, was not observing a ceasefire and very active. Most of the violence so far this year has been because of ELN, which is less than a third the size of FARC and now the greatest threat to infrastructure. Thus much of the security forces efforts will now switch to the ELN because of the new ceasefire.

July 21, 2015: In central Colombia (Meta) a soldier was killed by FARC gunfire as troops seized another FARC base.

In Caracas, Venezuelan police arrested two former Venezuelan Army officers and charged them with drug smuggling. The arrested men were accused of used their military connections to facilitate drug smuggling operations for Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. Growing corruption in Venezuela, especially among government officials, has made it easier for drug smugglers to operate here. There are occasionally arrests, usually involving people who did not bribe the right people or did not offer sufficient cash. 

July 20, 2015: FARC began another unilateral ceasefire. This one will last until November 20.

July 19, 2015: As a good will gesture FARC released a soldier they had captured two weeks earlier.  

July 16, 2015: The government revealed that the one month FARC ceasefire has been expanded (on the 12th) to four months and will still begin on the 20th. In return for this extension the government said it would reduce, but not eliminate military and police operations against FARC.

July 10, 2015: In the west (Cauca) a FARC roadside bomb killed two soldiers and wounded three. The troops were involved in an effort to find and rescue a soldier captured by FARC several days earlier.                        

July 8, 2015: FARC announced unilateral ceasefire, to begin on the 20th.

July 7, 2015: In the capital police revealed that they had arrested fifteen people for involvement in two bombings in the capital on the 2nd. Those arrested were members of ELN and many are students or faculty at a local university.

July 6, 2015: The heads of the army, navy and air force were dismissed and replaced. This is in response to a recent study accusing senior officers of involvement with illegal acts (kidnapping and killing civilians suspected of being terrorists) between 2002 and 2008. 


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