Colombia: Better To Apologize Later Than Ask Permission Now

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November 25, 2016: The peace deal with the FARC rebels was quickly (in eight weeks) renegotiated and signed by both parties. This one was designed to win approval by the legislature but not via a referendum. The new deal does not include a mandatory referendum as the first one did. The first peace deal, worked out during negotiations that began in 2010 was signed on September 26th and unexpectedly rejected in the October 2nd referendum. Critics of the first deal point out that the changes in the new agreement were cosmetic and that the key complaint, amnesty for FARC leaders responsible for mass murder and such, has not been changed. An opinion poll showed 58 percent of Colombians agreed with that assessment. The government has a majority in the legislature so it’s less difficult to get approval there. The government feels that political problems after the deal is approved are preferable to risking a collapse of negotiations because the FARC leaders will not accept prosecution for their crimes.

Before the first treaty was rejected opinion polls showed about-60 percent of voters willing to approve, even though there was obviously still a lot of bitterness about the amnesty terms. The government negotiators were caught between popular calls for justice and FARC leaders insisting that if the amnesty terms were not attractive enough most of the FARC factions would reject the deal and go outlaw. It wasn’t just about avoiding prison it was about money. Not just the billions in cash from drug operations. FARC had literally stolen and was unwilling to give up billions of dollars in property stolen over decades of controlling vast rural areas. A lot of the stolen property was subsequently sold. The original owners want their assets back, as well as cash for damage done to structures and improvements. The FARC leaders who got rich on these deals don’t want to become poor again. The revised deal provides more restitution to victims of these FARC confiscations.

The property restitution issue has been the subject of many proposed solutions. The most promising one was in 2011 when the government agreed to a deal whereby some two million hectares (5 million acres) of land stolen (through fraud, intimidation or outright theft) since the 1990s would be returned, along with buildings and other property, to some 430,000 families. But many of those who stole the land were willing to use lots of lawyers and hired guns to avoid giving back what they took by force (or bought from those who did). This plan got a lot of land claimants killed out in the still lawless rural areas. The current land crisis began in 2006 as FARC and drug gangs were driven from large areas along the borders (that being the best place to grow coca, and export the refined cocaine to overseas markets). As the former FARC territory again came under government control the government found it had inherited a lot of old social and economic problems. These were suspended by the decades of FARC and drug gang rule, and that in turn created some new problems. Now the newly liberated populations were free to vote, demonstrate and protest, and many had legitimate reasons to complain. A lot of the problems had to do with real estate. Indian tribes wanted their land rights back, farmers wanted title to the land they had long worked, business owners want their property (which owners had to leave behind when they fled to escape getting killed by the rebels or gangs) back. The government is having a hard time sorting all this out, especially while under pressure to get legitimate economic activity going in what was long lawless "bandit territory."

The rejected peace deal was believed to have handled all these problems with terms that many Colombians saw as misleading and intended to deceive Colombians into believing that FARC leaders would not get away with murder, and billions of dollars’ worth of stolen property and drug profits. After the referendum it was discovered that a lot of Colombians did notice that the peace deal terms depended on FARC voluntarily revealing how many billions of dollars they had hidden in foreign banks after the amnesty was approved. Worse, the extent to which that blood money was used for restitution (to the victims of FARC crimes) was to be determined by the FARC leaders. The second peace deal addressed some of these issues, but not enough to make it “referendum proof”.

Finally there was the impact of what was going on next door in Venezuela, where populist socialists took over the government by promising more than they could deliver and now refuse to give up power. The rejected peace deal gave FARC guaranteed seats in parliament and the freedom to do whatever they wanted with their blood money and status as a legal political party to turn Colombia into Venezuela. To many outside observers this seems absurd but to those who have lived next door to Venezuela as that country self-destructed it seemed all too possible that FARC, which was always openly allied with the socialist dictatorship in Venezuela, would be tempted to try the same madness in Colombia.

FARC also protested the validity of the referendum vote. Only 37 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot and 49.78 percent of those approved the peace deal. Some FARC supporters said that this demonstrated how democracy does not work. It’s attitudes like that which led to the low voter turnout by people who told pollsters they approved the peace deal. Those who opposed the deal were more committed because many of them had lost kin or property to FARC.

Some of the peace deal terms are not contentious and those involve the process of identifying and disarming the FARC members. Once a peace deal is approved the 7,000 armed and 3,000 or so unarmed FARC members will have about two months to 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 after about 14 months 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).

The government agreed to renegotiate the amnesty and restitution terms as well as special political rights (guaranteed seats in parliament) that are in the rejected deal. The government extended the ceasefire with FARC until the end of the year.

Venezuela

Next door Venezuela is collapsing economically and politically. The pope sponsored peace talks which are now stalled because the opposition demands that the president resign. That won’t happen as long as the Supreme Court (appointed by the president) continues to support him and the military goes along with that. The next round of talks are on December 6th but the government has shown no intention to compromise. The president saw his approval rating fall below 20 percent, which is a record low for any Venezuelan president. With food shortages increasing and demonstrations more frequent (and more violent) the government is hoping for a miracle while most Venezuelans fear more violence and destitution.

The leftist rulers of Venezuela destroyed their 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.

The government insists that if it has enough time it can fix the economy. In practical terms the government does not want to give up power and be subject to prosecution and confiscation of wealth many officials have amassed as the economy fell apart. 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 barter only with oil being used to pay. Cuba is a major victim of this 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 but that income is disappearing. In 1999 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 nearly two decades 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 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. Foreign companies seem to agree as most of them have abandoned billions of dollars’ worth of investments in Venezuela. Attempts to sell these assets often brought no offers and in some cases it was impossible to give these firms away because the government threatened to prosecute the owners for not running the operation at a loss.

Currently Venezuela is experiencing annual inflation rates of over a thousand 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.

To make matters worse the government has spent millions on importing consumer goods for the Christmas shopping season. But these items are being sold at prices over 90 percent of Venezuelans cannot afford. To make matters worse these imports fill entire aisles in supermarkets and the shelves are never depleted because no one buys any of it. Most of the other shelves are empty because there is so little affordable food available.

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 has so far prevented the recall vote any way (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.

November 24, 2016: In Colombia the government and FARC signed a new peace deal.

In Venezuela Chile is demanding that the Venezuelan government explain what happened to an August shipment of 75,000 packets of medicine and food supplements for a Venezuelan charity to distribute to the needy. The Venezuelans say the shipment arrived without the proper paperwork and was declared abandoned and turned over to the Venezuelan government. Caritas, the charity that sent the stuff, said their requests to the Venezuelans for the proper forms were ignored. Caritas is an international Catholic charity and finally appealed to the Chilean government for help. Venezuelans believe the aid shipment, like many others, was stolen by government officials and sold on the open market.

November 19, 2016: In the west (Choco state) troops clashed with ELN rebels and killed a known leader.

November 18, 2016: In the United States two nephews of the Venezuelan president were convicted of drug smuggling and will receive a sentence of at least ten years. The trial began on November 7th. The two nephews were arrested in Haiti in 2015 and extradited to the United States. They admitted they were working for FARC and using their government connections to move 800 kg (1.700 pounds) of Colombian cocaine to the United States via Venezuela, Honduras and Mexico. These two defendants are actually nephews of the president’s wife (Cilia Flores), whose family is infamous for having received so many high paying government jobs since her husband became president in 2013. Flores is a lawyer and politician and even before her husband became president she was known to be corrupt. Flores is aware that the daughter of former president Chavez managed to build a fortune worth over $4 billion after her father came to power in 1998. The Maduro clan is not likely to do nearly as well. The two nephews bragged that some of the drug profits would go to “Aunt Celia.” After they were arrested they insisted FARC owned the cocaine. Before that they said the cocaine was actually owned by two other senior Venezuelan politicians (the minority leader in the national legislature and the governor of Aragua state). Aunt Celia accuses the United States of kidnapping her nephews and wants them back. Meanwhile the United States has indicted several other Venezuelan government officials on drug charges.

November 17, 2016: In the north (Bolivar state) several FARC gunmen clashed with troops and two of the leftist rebels were killed and a third captured. The army was looking for members of ELN who were attacking local farms and thought the FARC men were ELN. The captured FARC gunman said the three were headed for a demobilization camp 67 kilometers from where the clash occurred.

Venezuelan opposition leader Rosmit Mantilla was released from prison, where he has been since May 2014. The government accused him of plotting to overthrow the government but that was never proven. What Mantilla was doing was organizing anti-government demonstrations. Arresting opposition leaders has backfired because there are always more people willing to step in. So now the government is trying to gain some goodwill by releasing some of the more prominent (especially internationally) ones.

November 16, 2016: China has agreed to invest $2.2 billion to upgrade Venezuelan oil facilities. To pay for this Venezuela will increase shipments of oil to China from the 550,000 barrels a day (most of which is paying for past loans) to 800,000 barrels a day. The government corruption and mismanagement has hurt the Venezuelan oil industry and caused a decline in oil production from 3.5 million barrels a day in 1999 to 2.3 million today. The production decline is continuing, because the government refuses to clean up the mess in the national oil company and the oil production facilities. This collapse in oil income has created a cash shortage that the government has been dealing with by borrowing. That option is fading fast as potential lenders not the refusal to do anything about the fundamental problems. For example China has been a major lender and has provided about $50 billion since 2007. Most of these loans are repaid with Venezuelan oil. The amount of oil owed China increases as the oil price declines, which means Venezuela has less oil to sell for current needs. Because the socialist economic policies have driven most manufacturing, and even agricultural companies out of business nearly everything has to be imported. China fears that they may not see a lot of their loans repaid and are demanding more oil instead. In 2014 China was receiving over a third of Venezuelan oil exports and now that is nearly half.

 

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