Colombia: Getting Worse Faster

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January 6, 2017: Peace talks with ELN, a smaller (fewer than 2,000 gunmen) and more diehard leftist rebel group is proving difficult to make peace with. Negotiations finally got started in Ecuador on November 3rd. This came after months of delays because some ELN factions refused to release kidnapping victims, which both sides agreed was a pre-condition to talks. ELN has still not fully complied with this aspect of the agreement. ELN and the government have not agreed to a ceasefire and that will be one of the first items to be negotiated. Meanwhile there are already 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 agreeing to any peace terms. 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 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. But after October 5th that temporary ceasefire ended even though ELN remained committed to peace negotiations. In 2016 at least 46 ELN members were killed in combat, 388 were captured and 252 have voluntarily surrendered voluntarily. That’s over a third of estimated ELN strength at the beginning of the year. ELN has had some new recruits, but not enough to make up for losses.

Venezuela Finds New Ways To Fail

In Venezuela the corruption is getting worse as is the economy and the food situations. Some former government officials claim that over $300 billion in oil income was stolen since 2000. That would account for the extent of the poverty in Venezuela and lack of cash resources to deal with basics like food and common medical items. This is made worse by soldiers demanding bribes to move imported food to where it is need. In 2016 the government put the military in control of the food distribution system, to ensure fairness and the continued loyalty of the military (which would feed themselves first). The soldiers and officers quickly realized they could demand bribes from anyone else connected with the food distribution system, otherwise the food would not move. In some cases perishable food spoiled because the bribe money was not delivered in time. By 2016 nearly all food was imported and it was not enough, even without all the corruption.

The government refuses to release data on migration but nations throughout the region have been more open about the arrival of more Venezuelan tourists or applicants for work permits, permanent residence or asylum. It’s no secret in Venezuela that more people with skills (from mechanics to engineers and medical specialists) have been leaving over since 2002 (when the government fired thousands of professionals from the state owned oil company because they could not pass the loyalty test). In the last few years the government has accelerated its efforts to nationalize or shut down privately owned businesses and that drove up the unemployment rate. Those who had the means (financial and otherwise) began to leave in greater numbers. In the last few years a growing number of the less skilled and unskilled have been leaving as well. A growing percentage of veteran supporters of socialism are also headed for another country, and few are choosing Cuba. Opinion polls show that by late 2016 nearly 60 percent of adults wanted to leave, which is a sharp rise from 49 percent in 2015. It would appear that about two million have left already but that is accelerating as the Venezuelan economy disintegrates and food becomes increasingly difficult to get, even if you can pay black market rates. At the current rate of emigration three million will be gone by the end of 2017, which is ten percent of the population. While these economic migrants have been found in 96 countries, most are in the United States, Spain and Colombia.

One of the less publicized shortages in Venezuela are the Cuban medical (doctors and nurses) and government (mainly security) specialists Venezuela has been hiring for nearly a decade. The Cuban government took most of the hard currency these Cubans were paid in Venezuela and that, plus large shipments of cheap (or free) Venezuelan oil helped Cuba achieve a GDP growth rate of three percent for several years. But in 2016, when Venezuela cut most of the “gifts” the Cuban GDP declined by one percent.

Meanwhile the Cuban government and security advisors have not been much help. Despite decades of successfully preventing popular dissatisfaction over widespread poverty and lack of freedom (and economic opportunity) from escalating into rebellion, the Cuban experience has not transferred well to Venezuela. The Cubans have not been much help in keeping the opposition quiet or doing anything for the soaring crime rate. That’s because the government has not been able to build the kind of police state system Cuba created in the late 1950s and early 60s. In large part that is because Cuba in the 1950s had no cell phones or Internet. Cuba also had a lot of cash and assets to work with initially (from nationalized businesses). In the 1950s Cuba had one of the largest economies in the Caribbean. But once the communist rebels took over in 1959 the economy began falling apart. Russian advisors shared their wisdom on how to set up and operate an effective police state and that was largely possible because that involved forcing the entrepreneurs out of the country and killing or imprisoning pro-democracy Cubans before they could get organized. Before cell phones and the Internet that was a lot easier. Also back in the late 1950s the communist police state had a lot more supporters and many believed it was a viable form of government. This illusion was maintained by large subsidies from the Russians. That eventually changed in 1989-91 when communist states (including the Soviet Union) basically disappeared from Europe because they did not work economically or politically. That meant no more financial support from Russia.

The Cubans tried to adapt their system for Venezuela, but Cuba had Russia providing large annual subsidies until 1991 and Venezuela has no such wealthy patron to fall back on. Venezuela has the oil, but when the price fell by more than half after 2013 it was the equivalent of 1991 for Cuba except that Venezuela did not yet have a communist police state in place to deal with the sudden privation. Venezuelan economic and political collapse are unavoidable without having that police state structure in place. That’s because while the Soviet Union eventually (after 70 years) failed because of economic issues, the communist bureaucrats did create a police state system that kept unhappy Russians under control until suddenly the people were not taking it anymore. One of the key elements of control was exploitation of the fact that the state controlled all jobs and any actual or suspected disobedience would result in unemployment, prison camp or death. The government could jail anyone for any reason at any time. The only ones getting rich in such a system were the government officials who controlled the jobs and security forces. This is how it now works in Cuba and where it’s going in Venezuela, except for the fact the Venezuelan government hasn’t got the secret police and tight control of society Cuba does, which enabled Cuba to keep the crime rate low (and prison camps full) and the ability to control the economic crash that arrived in the 1990s as the Russian subsidies disappeared. Cuba had to adopt a market economy and did what China did; allow a free market but still maintain the existing communist police state. In Venezuela the problem is that no one is taking care of the economy, which continues to degrade towards complete collapse. That’s where the Soviet Union ended up and where Venezuela is headed. The government is keeping people in line by threatening the growing number of Venezuelans with government jobs with loss of those jobs if they misbehave. But even many, if not most, government employees are going hungry and many of these veteran government supporters are seeking to leave the country, or even change the government. The Cuban advisors point out that without better control of the population even a police state cannot survive. The Cubans, like the North Koreans and the Chinese (the three surviving communist police states) studied what happened between 1989 and 1991 in East Europe and made changes to keep their police states going. Venezuela has not adapted.

President Maduro seems oblivious of all the suffering and in December appeared in filmed TV shows depicting him, his family and obviously well fed friends, celebrating with traditional holiday dishes and all manner of good cheer. Maduro told Venezuelans that things would get better in 2017. But he said that about 2016 and 2015 and most Venezuelans are too busy trying to stay alive to care. Finding food is a full time occupation for a growing number of Venezuelans. At the same time the government has ordered the military and pro-government militias (who are fed regularly) to make sure that food only goes to Venezuelans who do not actively oppose the government. There would be a lot more anti-government demonstrations were it not for this use of food as a political weapon. Maduro may be in a bad spot but he knows that there is enough oil income to keep 10-20 percent of the population taken care of. That, he hopes, is enough to control the unrest as North Korea or Cuba do. Maduro is also depending on oil prices rising again, which would make it even easier for him to become president-for-life. But oil prices may not increase fast enough or high enough to bail out Maduro because even with pre-2014 oil revenues the Venezuelan economy was ruined by government corruption and hostility to privately owned businesses and entrepreneurs in general.

In eastern Colombia local jewelers and precious metal dealers report that the flood of Venezuelans coming across the border to sell weddings rings and family jewelry is slowing down, apparently because there not much left to sell in Venezuela. During the second half of 2016 the Colombians who bought precious metals reported a huge increase in business from Venezuela, where the economy had collapsed and a growing number of people were unemployed or not bringing in enough cash to buy sufficient food for their families.

January 4, 2017: In Venezuela the beleaguered president Maduro reshuffled his cabinet and appointed Tareck El Aissami, a former interior minister, as his deputy and, apparently, successor. Aissami has been accused of dealings with Hezbollah, Iran and drug gangs, which have been able to move cocaine through Venezuela if the pay off the right government officials. The drugs often move on to Cuba, which taught the current Venezuelan government how to make this sort of thing work. Since 2000 Iran and Hezbollah have been welcome in Venezuela.

With Aissami Maduro is either a true believer in his socialist government and its staying power, or he is looking for someone to take the heat while he and his now wealthy family depart for a foreign refuge. So far the leftists have used control of the Supreme Court to block moves by the opposition majority in parliament to remove Maduro. This control of the Supreme Court and the security forces could also be used by Maduro to try and rig the next presidential elections in 2018. That could trigger a civil war that the socialists would lose because they have no allies sharing land borders.

In Colombia the government demanded that the UN exercise better supervision over the hundreds of UN observers being brought in to supervise the FARC disarmament. This criticism came after video of UN staff and FARC members dancing together at a holiday party appeared on the Internet and other media. The UN quickly responded by sending four of the observers home and assuring the government that the observers would neutral. Some 500 observers are already in Colombia. One of the reasons leftist rebels persist for so long is because of admirers in the West and especially the UN and many foreign aid organizations. The UN would not identify the four observers sent home but one of those in the video was separately identified as a military officer from Portugal. This is a touchy subject in Colombia where many have lost kin to leftist violence that many UN and aid officials describe as justified resistance to oppression. This is particularly annoying when the victims are children or people kidnapped for cash, not ideology.

January 1, 2017: In the north (Bolivar province) troops captured twenty ELN members although eight of them turned out to be minors (under 18) and eligible for quick release as “rescued minors.” Some of these “child soldiers” turn out to be true believers and deadly serious about becoming a career gunman.

The Colombian government revealed that the country now had 15 million Internet users and 56 million cell phone users. That means that nearly half the households had Internet access and nearly every adult (and most teenagers) had a cell phone.

December 31, 2016: In a surprise move the Venezuelan government released six prominent opposition leaders that had been jailed on false charges. Many other South American countries have demanded that the government release a hundred such “political prisoners” or risk being declared an outlaw nation. The released opposition leaders were not pardoned and can be sent back to prison at the whim of the government.

In eastern Colombia, near the Venezuelan border, ELN released a businessman they had kidnapped. Apparently a ransom had been paid.

December 28, 2016: Outside the capital ELN gunmen shot dead a part-time policeman who was guarding a power facility and then planted a bomb under the body. This went off when more police showed up, wounding five policemen.

In the capital the legislature approved the amnesty provisions of the peace deal, which directly applies to several hundred prominent FARC members.

December 27, 2016: In the southwest (Narino) police arrested four ELN members and seized a large quantity of weapons and ammo that was to be used for attacks on security forces.

December 24, 2016: In Venezuela data leaked documenting that 4,300 Venezuelans were killed “resisting the government” during the first nine months of 2016. Another 15,000 people were arrested during these operations, several hundred of them essentially kidnapped on orders of the president. This violence is nothing new and it was known to be getting much worse over the last few years despite government efforts to prevent that via its largely state controlled media.

December 16, 2016: In the east, near the Venezuelan border, two Colombian soldiers on patrol were shot dead by some ELN gunmen.

In Venezuela the government announced, without warning, that all hundred bolivar banknotes (the largest in circulation and accounting for 77 percent of all cash) were now worthless but could be turned in for new, larger denomination notes. The problem was that the new notes were not printed in Venezuela and the first shipment would not arrive until the 18th and it would be weeks before enough of the new notes were available. In many parts of the country there were riots and widespread looting. The worst violence was in the south (Bolivar Province) where at least five people died and hundreds were arrested as police sought to halt the looting. Several hundred stores, most of them containing food, were stripped of what little they still had. Within days the government backed off and said the old notes could be used to January 2nd. That was later extended to January 20th. The hundred bolivar note is worth only about two cents on the black market. A few weeks ago it was three cents but the inflation is spiraling out of control. In the last year the cost of buying one U.S. dollar went from 800 bolivars to over 3,500. The highest denomination of the new notes is 20,000 bolivars, which is currently worth six dollars and getting worse faster. The government blames all this on the United States and a deliberate campaign to destroy the socialist government of Venezuela.

December 15, 2016: In the southeast FARC expelled five FARC commanders and many of their followers because these groups refused to abide by the terms of the peace deal. There was a similar expulsion in July, even before the government agreed to the peace terms.

December 11, 2016: In the north (Cesar) the first group of armed FARC members arrived at a UN run demobilization camp to disarm and deal with other demobilization matters. For FARC as a whole the disarmament will be completed by the end of April.

December 1, 2016: The government revealed that the resumption of peace negotiations with the ELN had been postponed to January 10th because the ELN had to deal with internal disagreements over proposed peace terms. ELN hardliners are demanding the release of more imprisoned ELN members. The government is also demanding that ELN cease all kidnapping and release people currently being held. The government also wants ELN to halt its extortion activities before talks begin but it willing to be more flexible on this point.

November 30, 2016: The Colombian congress voted to approve the revised version of the FARC peace deal. This legislation calls for the disarmament process to begin the day congress approves it. The senate approved the deal yesterday.

November 29, 2016: In Venezuela the currency (the bolivar) hit a record low, requiring over 3,400 bolivars to buy one U.S. dollar. This is up from 800 in late 2015. The bolivar buys less and less. The government enables shortages by artificially selling dollars to well-connected people for 6.5 bolivars (local currency) but on the black market dollars cost 800 bolivars. Thus importers have an incentive to divert dollars they bought at the official rate to illegally import items (like cell phones) they can sell on the black market for huge profits. The government will not admit this sort of thing even exists but it is common knowledge that this practice causes both the shortages and the sudden wealth so many government officials (and their friends in the business world) have come into. Goods available in government stores are sold for bolivars at the government rate. Thus smugglers point out that it is often more profitable to smuggle Venezuelan food into Colombia than to move Colombian cocaine into Venezuela.

 


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