Colombia: Living With Immunity

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September 28, 2016: The peace deal with the FARC rebels has been agreed to (on August 24th) and signed (on September 26th). A nationwide vote must approve the deal and this is to take place October 2nd. Opinion polls show about-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.

With FARC disbanding there is still the ELN, a smaller (fewer than 2,000 gunmen) and more diehard leftist rebel group. Already there are reports from locals of ELN gunmen trying to take over from FARC in areas where FARC has left or halted operations. ELN is waiting to see how the FARC agreement works out before entering anything more than preliminary peace talks. ELN has been 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. After the final FARC peace deal was signed ELN announced it would cease combat operations between September 30th and October 5th so as not to interfere with the referendum vote.

Venezuela

Eastern neighbor Venezuela is collapsing economically and politically, which is one reason why Colombian rebel groups like FARC and ELN became more interested in making peace. Venezuela has, since 1999, been an ally of FARC and willing to do business with the drug cartels FARC worked for. But the elected leftist leaders in Venezuela showed how a government that FARC advocated would work in practice. The leftist rulers of Venezuela destroyed the Venezuelan economy and refuse to admit they are the problem. This is alarming all the neighbors and the UN because the Venezuelan government refuses to accept foreign aid for a population suffering obvious, and growing, food and medicine shortages. While the Venezuelan government is distracted by its delusional leadership the economy is obviously imploding. GDP fell 6.2 percent in 2015 and about twice that for 2016. This indicates likely 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 near enough to the Colombian border they cross to find what is no longer available in Venezuela. Meanwhile the Venezuelan government is not doing much that helps. What the government is doing is trying to suppress local media from publicizing the corruption of senior leaders and their families. More details of that misbehavior are becoming visible because more Venezuelans who once supported the leftist government no longer do and are openly discussing corruption that was long known to exist but difficult to prove or prosecute. It’s still difficult to prosecute these crimes in Venezuela (because the leftist leaders still control the courts and police) but such misbehavior can and increasingly is prosecuted outside the country. So these revelations are not only embarrassing to the leftist leaders but threatens the billions of dollars they have moved out of Venezuela.

Since 2015 one unworkable government “economic recovery” plan after another was proposed none worked. Now these proposals never generate much action at all because the government is rapidly running out of cash and has lost most popular support for any of their radical solutions. Attempts to get more loans out of China, a major customer for Venezuelan oil and major lender, are now turned away without explanation. The Chinese see where this is going and want to cut their losses. China has been a major diplomatic and economic supporter but because China is now obviously backing away no one else is willing to lend. Venezuela already has lots of foreign debt and some of it looks like it won’t get paid back even after a new government takes power. In 2015 China agreed to provide another $5 billion but only for maintenance and upgrades on Venezuelan oil production facilities. This was so China has a better chance of getting paid back the other $40 billion it has loaned Venezuela. But even that deal appears to be unravelling because of corruption and mismanagement in the state owned oil company, which has seen profits decline by over 60 percent this year. Since 2014 China has been quietly advising Chinese working in Venezuela to get out and over 30,000 Chinese have done so. New investments from China or Chinese firms, once so abundant, have disappeared since 2015.

While most lenders can survive the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, some of the nations that depended a lot of Venezuela, like tiny neighbor Suriname, are also suffering a depression. Cuba is also taking a big hit because for over a decade Cuba got cheap oil and lots of dollars from the leftist government of Venezuela. In return Cuba provided cheap medical professionals, practical advice on how to run a socialist government and, unofficially, help in certain illegal activities, like smuggling drugs to North America and Europe as well as moving cash that Venezuelan leaders had stolen. The Cuban economy is in recession again and looking for other patrons.

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 did all the wrong things to the state owned oil company that had long been the key to Venezuelan economic survival. The new socialist government diverted necessary investment in maintaining and expanding the oil production facilities and infrastructure (power, water, roads) in general. The oil company workforce was purged and that replaced a lot of competent managers and workers with people known mainly for their loyalty to the new government. This meant that as the oil prices fell so did Venezuela’s ability to even 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 2016. 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 parliament can still investigate corruption and mismanagement in the government and is doing so but the president still controls the courts and police and interferes with parliament reform efforts any way he can.

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. It always is until it suddenly isn’t.

September 26, 2016: In Colombia the final peace deal with FARC was finally signed.

September 23, 2016: Venezuela has permanently (for now) reopened the main border crossings with Colombia. Venezuela ordered the 2,219 kilometer long border closed in August 2015 and only reopened some crossings sporadically since then. The official reason for the 2015 closing was a non-existent threat of attack from Colombia. The real, but unofficial, reason was the Venezuelan government fears that there might be a mass exodus from Venezuela because of the economic crisis there. The Venezuelan government also believed the border closings would reduce the smuggling created because of price controls and the thriving black market the shortages created. In practice the border closings did not stop the smugglers, it just made it a bit more expensive for them to operate. For Venezuelans desperate to get to Colombia to obtain essential supplied (like food or medicine) the border closing made it more expensive (in time and money) to cross the border. All this was because there are several hundred known, but illegal, border crossings with Colombia that Venezuela does not crack down on. That’s because these remote and unofficial crossings are a necessity. Even when Venezuela opens all the official crossings they impose 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 informally guarded but the fees are much lower plus 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. With the official crossings open again the government can import emergency supplies from Colombia as well as allow the few remaining legal Venezuelan export businesses to survive.

September 22, 2016: In southwest Colombia (Narino province) police cornered and captured eight ELN members, including at least two senior leaders. Police also rescued a teenager who had recently been “persuaded” to join.

September 15, 2016: In Venezuela the government extended (for another 60 days) the economic State of Emergency (allowing the leftist president to rule by decree) that was first instituted in January 2016. The president has extended it ever since.

September 3, 2016: In northeast Colombia (Norte de Santander province) ELN used a bomb to rupture an oil pipeline. So far this year there have been over ELN pipeline and other oil facility attacks.

 

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