Jan 30

Here are translated excerpts from Semana magazine’s report on a conference it sponsored yesterday entitled “Colombia and Obama: Hopes and Fears.” A brief but interesting look at how some of Colombia’s frequently cited experts are trying to make sense of the changing of the guard in Washington.

“There are very influential Democrats who know the country and who are close to global human rights organizations. The important thing is not what has already been done to reduce violence and impunity, but what remains to be done: that is the reasoning that must be responded to.” – Jaime Ruiz, former high Colombian embassy official in Washington.

“In time a free-trade agreement will be approved because it’s also in the United States’ interest, but in the midst of a recession this doesn’t seem to be the moment.” – Jaime García Parra, former ambassador to the United States.

“The opinion of Arlene Tickner, an analyst at the University of the Andes, is that narcotrafficking is of decreasing importance in the United States’ internal agenda.”

“In addition to the Democrats’ human-rights demands, ‘we must understand the question of minorities and make advances,’ added [Miguel] Gómez [of the Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce].

“The impact of President Uribe’s possible re-election on relations with the United States was not lost on the forum. Alfonso Cuéllar, Semana editor-in-chief and moderator of the intense dialogue, said it was difficult to know about whom Obama was thinking when he referred to leaders who cling to power being on the wrong side of history, but in any case that it still applied to Colombia.”

Jan 29

Medellín’s El Colombiano newspaper appears to have the scoop:

El Colombiano is able to confirm that the Commander in Chief has already made the decision to step aside so that new leaders may take power, and he left in the Uribista coalition’s hands the responsibility to elect a unity candidate who brings together the policies of democratic security, investor confidence and social cohesion, this government’s pillars.

The article says nothing about whether Álvaro Uribe might try to run for a non-consecutive reelection in 2014.

Jan 28

Here is an English translation of a recording of a conversation with former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, which the Colombian newsmagazine Semana revealed back in September. In this excerpt, Mancuso – extradited to the United States last May, where he faces charges of shipping large quantities of cocaine – calmly discusses the economics of the cocaine business, as he experienced it.

The individual being interviewed here is a mass murderer and narcotrafficker with a great interest in improving his own image. Nonetheless, Mancuso’s account of how the drug trade works does not vary significantly from what most Colombian drug-policy experts would tell you.

One detail that Mancuso adds – whether true or not – is that the guerrillas and the paramilitaries are really just middlemen making about US$500 per kilogram of cocaine. The big money, he contends, is with narcotraffickers who are not armed-group members, who receive much assistance from Colombia’s legitimate business community as they seek to repatriate drug profits equivalent to about 5 percent of Colombia’s GDP.

If you understand Spanish, visit the page on the Semana website where a recording of Mancuso’s words accompanies an animated graphic illustrating what he’s talking about.

How many hectares [of coca] are cultivated in Colombia?

Salvatore Mancuso: There are data that the United Nations SIMCI project gives, that is a satellite monitoring system over the regions where coca crops are grown. Normally those zones are national parks and others are fringe zones very close to national parks, but in general they are all tropical rainforest zones.

To try to carry out a complete satellite monitoring of an area where a tropical rainforest exists is a technical impossibility because of these regions’ cloudiness. That’s why it is very understandable when the SIMCI tells one that in Córdoba [the northwestern Colombian department, or province, that Mancuso once dominated] there are 1,200 or 1,500 hectares that can be verified on the Internet. This has no basis in reality.

In Córdoba there are between 15,000 and 18,000 hectares of coca, of which we controlled half and the guerrillas half. In Córdoba department we controlled some 7,000 or 8,000 hectares that produced 3,500 to 4,000 kilograms (3.5-4 tons) of coca [cocaine] per month. Why? Because a hectare of coca produces on average half a kilogram per hectare per month. There are 4 harvests per year, every three months.

This average applies to crops in the rest of the country?

SM: It is a national-level average. Carrying out a study of the crops that were both in Córdoba and in Catatumbo [another region Mancuso dominated, in Norte de Santander department near Venezuela], and in part of southern Bolívar [department], this study was made and we dug up this statistical fact.

What does it mean? That the Colombian government’s calculations that only 80,000 to 90,000 hectares of coca exist in Colombia are false. In Colombia there exist approximately 160,000 hectares of coca and they will keep existing for our whole lives as long as eradication programs are done in scattered focal points in different regions.

There are 160,000 hectares that produce 80,000 kilograms per month, which equals 1,000 tons per year, which is worth US$7 billion. Where does that statistic come from? The campesino sells it to whoever transforms it [into cocaine] (in general, guerrilla or paramilitary commanders) who then sells it to narcotraffickers. They buy coca base for $2.5-3.0 million pesos [more than US$1,000], transform it, paying $400,000-450,000 pesos [nearly US$200] for a laboratory to do the transformation, and sell it to narcotraffickers for $4.5 million pesos [about US$1,800]. … From every kilo they [the armed group] are getting mroe or less another million pesos [just under US$500] or maybe a little more due to corruption.

These $4.5 million pesos include transformation?

SM: The price of transformation is included. The campesino earns $1 million pesos [just under US$500] and this one [the armed-group], for transforming it, gets another million, because he must pay whoever transforms it so there is a million for the transformer and a million pesos for the campesino who sold it to him. He then sells it to a narcotrafficker, the narcotrafficker exports it. On average they get 10 million pesos [per kilo] which equals US$5,000 more than the value of the drug, that is, we’re talking about US$7,000-7,500, that is about $14 to $14.5 million pesos.

These statistics can be generalized for all Colombian narcotraffickers?

SM: It means that about US$7 billion enters the torrent of the national economy every year. How much of that do they repatriate? They repatriate between 80 and 90 percent, with the rest they buy luxury properties and stupid things overseas. But the rest enters the torrent of the national economy.

Is that a typical behavior among different narcos and different regions?

SM: Normally they leave very little hidden away. They always seek out the national economic associations [gremios económicos] who can help them inject it into the torrent of the national economy. For example in the stock exchange, in agricultural land, in investments in crops represented by respected businessmen, in the sense of having experience and recognition, whom nobody is going to investigate, because they have 10,000 hectares of sugarcane planted already, and if they plant 5,000 hectares more, nobody will investigate them because that is their tradition.

… You see, the narcotrafficking business has never been completely run by the self-defense groups or the guerrillas. It belongs to the narcotraffickers.

Jan 26

In a post three weeks ago, we discussed Venezuela’s persistent public security problems, including spiking murder and kidnapping rates and evidence of worsening organized crime. We interpreted the Venezuelan state’s inability to stem common crime as a reason to worry about its overall stability, especially its capacity to weather a likely coming economic shock.

Writing in last Thursday’s Washington Post opinion pages, international lawyer Robert Amsterdam offered a much more sinister take on Caracas’s crime wave. Likening Chávez’s Venezuela to Putin’s Russia, Amsterdam imputes that both leaders are keeping common crime levels high on purpose.

Since Putin and Chávez are said to rule with “iron fists,” a menacing question arises: Why have they been unable to stem the tide of crime in their streets? Is it a reflection of incompetence, or is there some tacit benefit to keeping a society imprisoned under a cloak of severe insecurity and moral panic? …

It occurred to me that the monstrous violence on the streets of Caracas and Moscow is perhaps useful to both regimes — and that in their incompetence at delivering public security, they have found a convenience that contributes to their grip on power.

Allowing lawlessness to fester on the streets as a means of enforcing an authoritarian social order? That’s certainly a novel interpretation of what’s happening in Venezuela. Violence in Venezuela could just as easily be the product of a model that, while highly statist and centralized, lacks the rigidity, ruthlessness and all-encompassing nature of the example followed in Cuba, where violent crime rates are negligible

If Mr. Amsterdam offered up even a shred of empirical evidence that Venezuela’s lax law enforcement was a deliberate strategy, and not simply a consequence of poor governance, his highly counterintuitive argument might make some sense. But his column includes no such evidence. It is surprising that the Washington Post would air such an outlandish argument based entirely on speculation.

Mr. Amsterdam is unconvincing. Venezuela’s violent crime problem is real and appears to be worsening. But instead of a devious means of social control, we see it as a result of bad public security policies, and thus a threat – not a support – to the Chávez government’s longevity.

Jan 22

The department (province) of Arauca, Colombia, has been a principal destination of U.S. military aid. U.S. equipment and trainers have spent much time in this oil-producing region, which shares a border with Venezuela, since 2003. That year, the Bush administration launched a program to help the Colombian army defend an oil pipeline that the FARC and ELN guerrillas frequently bombed.

Arauca had been one of the ELN’s key strongholds, with the group profiting handsomely from extorting the region’s oil wealth, since the 1980s. Starting in the early 2000s, but especially after 2005, the much larger FARC launched an offensive to supplant the ELN, making the region the scene of intense fighting. Both sides engaged in frequent combat and campaigns of murder and intimidation of each other’s perceived supporters. The death toll of this intra-guerrilla fighting exceeds 300 since 2005, and is probably far higher.

Most had assumed that the U.S.-aided Colombian Army units in Arauca had little to do with the slaughter. Either they were unable to penetrate the remote areas where combat was occurring, or they decided that it was not worth risking soldiers’ lives to halt fighting between two groups of sworn enemies. Whatever the reason, observers believed that the Colombian Army was standing idly by.

This perception is sadly wrong, according to a cover story published Sunday in the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. It turns out that the Colombian Army did choose sides in this bloody battle: some officers were actually working with elements of the ELN to attack the FARC.

Despite being far weaker than the FARC, the ELN has had much military success against the larger group in Arauca. It appears to have fended off the FARC offensive and strengthened its presence, with perhaps 400 members now in the department. In December, the ELN ambushed a police patrol near Fortul, Arauca, killing eight.

Did U.S.-aided military units play a role in the ELN’s revival in Arauca? Semana seems to think so.

For several years, various high officials of the Colombian Army decided that the best and most effective way to deal with the war in that region of Colombia was to precisely follow the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Some military officials unhesitatingly allied themselves with ELN guerrillas in order to confront and defeat the FARC. What began in 2006 as a military operation turned into mutual cooperation between the ELN and the military. This benefited the ELN, as in little time these guerrillas have been able to recuperate part of their military and political capacity in Arauca.

SEMANA obtained dozens of conversations that were intercepted by the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, between an Army major in Arauca – who calls himself “Jairo” – and “Ernesto,” a commander from the Marta Elena Barón column of the Domingo Laín Front of the ELN. The conversations are part of an investigation that the Fiscalía made against the official, an investigation which Army members say “didn’t result in anything.” The recordings are simply chilling and show a very dark facet about how the war was waged in Arauca.

In the intercepted communications, in which they call each other “Brother,” Major “Jairo” and guerrilla “Ernesto” discuss:

  • The locations of Army troops, which “Jairo” reveals to the ELN.
  • Pulling the Army out of specific areas so that ELN guerrillas can freely patrol. One of the areas the military vacates, incidentally, is Santo Domingo, site of a notorious 1998 Colombian Air Force bombing that killed 18 civilians.
  • Arranging for the ELN to kill a group of alleged FARC militants, but not too many of them – “We can’t allow it to appear as a massacre because that would be a problem.”
  • The ELN alerting the Army to the location of FARC members so that the army can kill them, because “I know that you need to show results because they are pressuring you.
  • The Army promising to deliver grenades to the ELN.

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is now investigating these allegations. The U.S. government would do well to follow this investigation closely. According to El Tiempo, Major “Jairo” was attached to the 5th Mobile Brigade, a Colombian Army unit that has received very generous amounts of U.S. assistance since 2003. There is strong reason to believe that members of this U.S.-supported unit were working closely with an illegal armed group on the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. And in this bizarre case, that group is not even the paramilitaries – it is the leftist, Marxist, purportedly anti-state ELN.

Sunday’s revelations have received little attention in Washington, as would be expected during Inauguration week. But they raise a very important question. Did the United States end up indirectly supporting the ELN’s revival in Arauca?

Jan 14

El Tiempo asked me yesterday to briefly discuss the political implications of President Bush awarding Colombian President Álvaro Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The focus of this piece, as a result, is different from the joint NGO statement we signed on to yesterday – more of a “news analysis” than a protest.

Here is the English. The Spanish is on El Tiempo’s website. My byline doesn’t appear (a blessing, perhaps), but it’s me.

Analysis: The Medal of Freedom’s Risks

President Uribe has little to gain or lose by accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom in Washington Tuesday. The negative and the positive nearly cancel each other out, leaving his ability to pursue his agenda in the United States little changed.

There are clear political risks, though. For many of the now-ruling Democrats, President Bush’s decision to give Uribe the United States’ highest civilian honor reignites the past two years’ bitter debates over the Free Trade Agreement and the future of U.S. assistance. These debates raised the profile of Colombia’s continuing human rights scandals, para-politics, and President Uribe’s own repeated attacks on human rights defenders, the media and the judiciary. For many, then, the spectacle of President Bush appearing to ignore these concerns will increase their desire to remake his Colombia policy.

Another, equally serious, risk is that the medal increases the perception that Uribe is partisan. Uribe, who met with both John McCain and Sarah Palin, already has to confront a perception that Obama was not his candidate. Now, he will be visiting Bush in his final days to receive the same award to the CIA Director and the civilian and military leaders of the Iraq invasion, which generated an enormous outcry in December 2004.

President Uribe has not done enough to dispel the notion that he is in Washington to offer a final valedictory to George Bush. His public message to the next administration appears to be one of nostalgia for the Bush years, instead of a desire to work constructively with the incoming team.

On the other hand, it’s not all risk for President Uribe. Despite recent politicization, the Medal of Freedom remains prestigious. He is receiving an award that only thirteen other foreign leaders have received in the past sixty years. Foreign Medal of Freedom awardees are an elite group that includes Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. Among the majority of U.S. policymakers who pay little attention to Colombia, the medal confers a strong measure of legitimacy: “He has a Medal of Freedom. His critics must be exaggerating.”

Uribe, then, will return to Colombia with a shade more prestige, but also with stronger questions about human rights and a greater perception that he is tied to a deeply unpopular U.S. president and his out-of-power party. The Medal of Freedom’s net effect is likely to be minimal.

Jan 13

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award the U.S. government offers, and it aims to recognize those who make “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” President Harry Truman originated it in 1945, John F. Kennedy revived it in 1963, and it began to be given regularly in the 1980s.

When we last saw the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a high-profile setting, it was December 2004 and President Bush was bestowing it on Paul Bremer, Tommy Franks and George Tenet for their role in Iraq. Critics, noting the disastrous state of the Bush administration’s controversial war, charged that the President was politicizing, and thus devaluing, the medal.

On Tuesday, exactly a week before George Bush leaves office, he will make Colombian President Álvaro Uribe one of thirteen foreign heads of state or government to have received the medal. Uribe will be joined at the White House by two former prime ministers, Iraq coalition partners Tony Blair of the UK and John Howard of Australia.

Below is a joint statement by several U.S. organizations, including CIP, expressing strong opposition to this award. Álvaro Uribe reduced violence in his country by marshaling military resources against leftist guerrillas, and brokering a deal with rightist paramilitaries. But Colombia is still one of the Americas’ most violent countries, and its conflict is nowhere near ending. Organized crime and narcotrafficking remain robust, with drug production virtually unchanged. The security forces’ commitment to human rights is shaky at best. The president’s own attacks on human-rights defenders, journalists, judicial officials and political opponents are very disturbing, and in some cases a direct threat to the checks and balances on which democracy depends. Also disturbing are the allegations that so many of Uribe’s close political supporters have been paramilitary supporters too. Meanwhile Uribe is still considering a third term in office, which would put his democratic credentials deeply into question.

The decision to offer the Medal of Freedom is the President’s alone to make. As Álvaro Uribe is honored Tuesday, though, we just wish that a U.S. government would someday offer similar recogntion to Colombia’s thousands of other heroes. The country has no shortage of honest officials, non-governmental watchdogs, social-movement leaders and others who dream of living in a democracy under a strong rule of law. Most face constant opposition and threats from government representatives, organized crime, paramilitaries, and guerrillas too. Sadly, Tuesday’s medal ceremony is not for them.

For Immediate Release

US: Award to Uribe Sends Wrong Message
Colombia’s Rights Violations Should Bar Its Leader From Award

(Washington, DC, January 12, 2009) – US President George W. Bush’s decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia is a disturbing example of the Bush administration’s disregard for serious human rights concerns out of zeal to show unconditional support to governments that it views as strategic allies, seven leading  nongovernmental organizations said today.

The organizations include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International-USA, Center for International Policy, Human Rights First, Latin America Working Group, Refugees International, and the Washington Office on Latin America.

Bush is giving the award to Uribe at a ceremony in the White House on Tuesday, January 13, 2009.

“The Bush administration has consistently turned a blind eye to Colombia’s serious human rights violations,” said the organizations. “Its selection of Uribe to receive this award only further tarnishes the Bush administration’s own reputation on human rights issues in the region.”

The groups pointed out that President Uribe has repeatedly taken steps and carried out policies that are damaging to human rights in Colombia.

Under President Uribe’s watch, there has been a dramatic increase in reports of extrajudicial killings of civilians by the Colombian Army. And while Uribe’s government has strongly confronted the abusive left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Uribe has failed to take a similarly clear stance against equally abusive drug-running paramilitary groups, who have massacred, raped, and forcibly displaced thousands of Colombians in recent decades. Fundamental flaws in a paramilitary demobilization process under Uribe have permitted many of the groups to continue to engage in abuses under new names. The president’s verbal attacks on his country’s human rights defenders have been frequent and disturbing. And Uribe has often opposed efforts to break paramilitaries’ influence in the political system, including by making unfounded accusations against the Supreme Court justices who are investigating more than 70 members of the Colombian Congress for links to paramilitaries.

Jan 09
  • In an interview with today’s Los Angeles Times, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos declares his intention to “fly to Washington to lobby for continuance of Plan Colombia” shortly after Barack Obama’s inauguration.
  • The National Security Archive has released a series of declassified U.S. documents that make clear U.S. officials knew about the Colombian armed forces’ serious human rights problems during the 1990s. The documents discuss both “false positives” – the practice of murdering civilans and presenting their bodies as guerrillas killed in combat – and collaboration with paramilitary groups.
  • NPR interviews Colombian novelist Laura Restrepo (author of Delirium) about Colombians’ views as the Obama administration begins. “It’s a Pax Paramilitar. I mean, the peace that’s going on now depends on paramilitary forces.”
  • Three weeks after the FARC announced its intention to release six long-held hostages, a time and place has still not been set. The guerrillas are demanding the presence of “some democratic personality from a brother country or the international community” at the release. A piece published yesterday by Inter-Press Service provides a detailed situation report.
  • Ten years ago today, El Tiempo recalls, paramilitary groups carried out their first major massacre in the department of Putumayo, in El Tigre. As many as 3,000 people would be killed or disappeared in Putumayo over the following five years. Nine years ago Sunday, President Bill Clinton introduced the “Plan Colombia” aid package, most of which was first spent in Putumayo.
  • The Economist appears to believe that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is close to making official his intention to hold a referendum allowing him to run for a third term. “[L]ast month he gave the clearest sign yet that he wants the referendum bill to be approved. During a 17-hour debate in the lower house on the last day of the parliamentary year, he first sent ministers to press waverers and then issued a decree allowing the session to continue past midnight. That was enough to ensure the bill’s passage to the Senate.”
  • In Mexico on Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador announced the delivery of $99 million in new military aid through the “Mérida Initiative.” It will pay for “aircraft and non-intrusive inspection equipment.”
  • The Colombian Coffee Federation wants to sue U.S. comic-strip artist Mike Peters for a “Mother Goose and Grimm” strip implying that Juan Valdez is actually in the coffee beans. We were unaware that you could sue someone for not being all that funny.
  • Along with former Prime Ministers Tony Blair of the UK and Michael Howard of Australia, President Uribe will be in Washington Monday to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush. An unnamed colleague notes that in today’s Washington, this is only a shade better than getting an award from Rod Blagojevich.
Jan 09

Location of Atánquez, site of the New Year’s Eve attack. Map from Wikipedia.

Here is a translation of Cambio magazine’s coverage Thursday of what appears to have been a serious December 31 attack on an indigenous community in Atánquez, in the municpality of Valledupar, in the northeastern Colombian department of Cesar. There, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, a grenade explosion at a New Year celebration killed five members of the Kankuamo indigenous group, a community that had already been hit extremely hard by the conflict.

Increasingly likely that emerging criminal groups carried out the attack in Atánquez

On Monday, January 5, Erika Fuentes, an 18-year-old Kankuama indigenous woman, became the fifth fatal victim of the grenade explosion that, on New Year’s night, stained with blood the celebration of an “open house and yard,” which is the name that the community of Atánquez, in Cesar, gives to its popular dances that are open to outsiders. The attack left an additional 67 people wounded.

Amid the pain the act produced, the young girl’s relatives heard the ultimatum that the mayor of Valledupar, Rubén Carvajal, gave the authorities. “The municipal government gives a period of 40 days for the authorities to tell the Kankuamo people who were those responsible for the possible massacre that occurred in their territory.”

“40 days could be a century for us,” replied Jaime Arias, governor of the Kankuamo cabildo. And he announced that he will employ the autonomy that the Constitution recognizes for indigenous communities to carry out an “agile, independent and conclusive” investigation of their own. His urgent haste owes to the fear generated by the possibility that the December 31 tragedy could be a signal that violence has returned to the indigenous territory most battered by the paramilitaries during the time of [AUC Northern Bloc leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias] “Jorge 40.”

And while Arias told Cambio that it is still premature to talk about a return of the massacres, and that it is fair to recognize that the AUC demobilization has so far had a positive effect, the fear has deep historial roots. “We don’t want a history of blood and pain to be revived,” he affirmed, and with statistics in hand he recalled that 300 Kankuamos have been murdered since 1986 by extremist groups, in some cases allied with the security forces. That violence, which he characterizes as “systematic,” reached its highest crest between 2000 and 2003, when 90 members of this ethnic group met with death.

The state’s apparent indifference about what happened in Atánquez, the center of one of the most important indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, led the Inter-American Human Rights Court to order the adoption of provisional protective measures because, in its judgment, the Kankuamo people were victims of an ethnocide. The decision came before the 2005 paramilitary demobilization, in the face of the government’s delay in implementing the precautionary measures the [Inter-American Human Rights] Commission had requested.

The year-end tragedy happened days after the government requested that said Court lift the precautionary measures.

According to the Cesar governor’s office and sources in the Army and Police, in the region are emerging criminal groups who are trying to occupy the spaces left behind by the demobilized, and during October and November 2008 pamphlets circulated in Valledupar from a group calling itself the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Groups of Colombia.” According to the intelligence services, this was a small group within the criminal organization of [fugitive narcotrafficker and backer of new paramilitary groups Daniel Rendón, alias] “Don Mario.”

Everything indicates that the emerging groups are seeking in Kankuamo territory the same thing as the paramiitaries who came before them: territorial control in a region where the central government expects to build the Besotes dam, in the Guatapurí River basin, and the promotion of development projects that especially favor growers of industrial oil palm.

Jan 06

In 1992, Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez sought to capitalize on a period of political and economic crisis with an attempted military coup.

Most of the U.S. discussion of Venezuela centers on Hugo Chávez’s highest-profile actions. His rhetorical bluster. His efforts to get himself re-elected indefinitely. His consolidation of executive power. His relationships with Russia and Iran.

Are these concerns well-placed? Several issues that Chávez’s government is not attending to – or is addressing poorly – are perhaps even more worrisome for Venezuela’s stability, as well as the region’s security.

  • Public security. Venezuela’s crime rates have worsened to some of the worst levels in Latin America, and by extension the world. The December 3 Christian Science Monitor reported, “Since president Chávez was elected in 1998, the homicide rate in the capital has more than doubled from 63 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants to 130 today. The country has experienced a parallel spike: from 20 to 48. That compares with a homicide rate in the US of 5.6.” Venezuela’s murder rate has exceeded Colombia’s since 2004. According to official data, meanwhile, the number of kidnappings increased from 44 in 1999 to 382 in 2007. Most are in states that border Colombia.
  • Narco and organized crime. Though Venezuela says it has destroyed 230 clandestine airstrips last year and increased seizures 60 percent since 2005, a huge amount of Colombian cocaine is being transshipped through Venezuelan national territory. Even if one disputes the U.S. government’s claims that as much as one-third of Andean cocaine passes through Venezuela, even a lower figure like 20 or 25 percent should be cause for great worry about the presence and power of wealthy organized-crime syndicates. While drug-related violence has not reached northern-Mexico levels, Venezuela is now seeing troubling incidents like the January 2008 gangland-style murder of Wilber Varela (alias “Jabón”), one of Colombia’s top narcotraffickers, in the resort town of Mérida.
  • Insecure borders. Several journalistic accounts over the past year have detailed the ease which which Colombian armed groups, particularly guerrillas, operate on Venezuela’s side of the two countries’ common border. Debate continues about whether the presence of groups like the FARC owes to (1) the difficulty of policing the borderlands, (2) corruption in the security forces, or (3) active help from President Chávez. Whatever the reason, the armed-group activity is a major factor of insecurity that the Venezuelan government is not sufficiently addressing.
  • Civil-military relations. Speculation about discontent within the Venezuelan armed forces increased in 2007 and 2008 when President Chávez’s longtime defense minister, Gen. Raúl Baduel, moved to the opposition, and when officers bristled at a requirement that they salute with the words “fatherland, Socialism or death.” In the middle of last year, AP reported that one-seventh of Venezuela’s officer corps had either requested early retirement or had been relieved of formal duties as a result of their dissent. Relations with the military were further complicated by an April 2008 decree creating a “National Reserve” outside the chain of command, reporting directly to the president.
  • Chaotic politics. In recent years, the only constant in Venezuelan politics has been the President himself. At all other levels, in both the government and the opposition, shakeups and realignments have been common and frequent. Neither state institutions nor political parties have been able to consolidate themselves. Ramón Carrizales is Chávez’s sixth vice-president since the 1999 constitution created the office. The President carried out far-reaching cabinet shakeups in each of the last two Januaries. And Venezuela’s constellation of political parties – both pro-government and opposition – is gigantic, complex and constantly shifting. (See Wikipedia’s enormous list of active Venezuelan political parties.) This ever-shifting, uncertain leadership situation is cause for concern about whether Venezuela’s institutions are able to carry out their assigned roles, especially in a crisis.
  • Inflation. “Inflation is running at 36% in the last 12 months, the highest in Latin America,” the BBC noted in November. The exchange rate of Venezuela’s bolívar is fixed at about 2,150 (2.15 “bolívares fuertes“) to the dollar. On the black market, however, a dollar routinely goes for much more.
  • Oil. Venezuela now gets 93 percent of its total export revenue from oil, making it the absolute cornerstone of the country’s economy. An October Washington Post story included a dire prediction from a Washington-based consulting firm, PFC Energy: “oil must be at least $94 a barrel to ensure Venezuela’s macroeconomic stability this year and generate enough money to pay for imports.” In December, though, a barrel of Venezuelan crude sold for an average of $32.66. While OPEC cutbacks and the Gaza fighting appear to be reversing the slide, Venezuela’s economy is undoubtedly hitting a rough patch along with the rest of the world, as evidenced by yesterday’s cancellation of CITGO’s program offering cheap heating oil to poor U.S. families.

A steep decline in oil prices in 1986 sent Venezuela’s economy into a severe tailspin. A 1989 attempt by President Carlos Andrés Pérez to implement neoliberal economic “shock treatment” policies triggered days of intense rioting in Caracas. The official death toll of the so-called Caracazo was 276, but is widely believed to have been several times higher. Within three years, Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez carried out a coup attempt that sought to capitalize on popular anger at the continued decline in living standards.

A replay of anything like the Caracazo is an outcome to be avoided. But the list of concerns laid out here calls seriously into question whether the Chávez government would be able to manage a period of severe economic hardship and instability, especially after several years of rapidly rising expectations among the poorest Venezuelans. A breakdown in Venezuela – or even just a period of social disorder – is not in anyone’s interest, not even those of Hugo Chávez’s most implacable opponents. And it would of course have dire consequences for the entire Andean region.

For the United States, the conclusion to draw from this is plain. Instead of putting all the focus on Chávez’s outbursts, Ahmadinejad’s visits, or ambassadorial expulsions, the next administration had also better be prepared to help Venezuela. And to do so at a moment’s notice.