Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Colombia is rapidly improving

The policital and security situation in Colombia has radically improved in the last five years and even in the last year. The paramilitaries, which were privately created armies to maintain order in chaos, have largely disbanded. And now FARC, the revolutionary resistance to the government for years, is getting weaker by the month. The USA now has a strong ally in South America with rapidly improving political instititions and a 7% real economic growth rate.

Here is an excerpt from an article in todays WSJ:

Rebels Flail in Colombia
After Death of Leader

May 28, 2008; Page A1

BOGOTÁ, Colombia -- Last November, a guerrilla commander in the jungles of Colombia wrote a despairing note to his superior, the legendary guerrilla leader known as Manuel Marulanda.

"The [army] operation doesn't let up. The number of troops is enormous," wrote Iván Márquez. "Sometimes we eat once a day."

Mr. Márquez's flagging morale, and that of the broader Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group, known as the FARC, has probably deteriorated much further in the past few months. This past weekend, it emerged that Mr. Marulanda, whose given name is Pedro Antonio Marín, died of an apparent heart attack in late March. He was the FARC's leader for four decades.

Mr. Marulanda's death is only the latest blow to the FARC, Latin America's oldest and biggest insurgency. Having been at the gates of Bogotá just five years ago, the group finds itself on the run from an invigorated Colombian military that runs nightly bombing missions. By most estimates, the rebels' ranks have fallen from an estimated 18,000 fighters to about half that level -- ravaged by desertions. The group's command and control structure has been disrupted to the point where rebels hardly ever use mobile phones for fear of being overheard, relying instead on a system they used in 1964: couriers on foot.

The turnaround is a triumph for Colombia's military and President Alvaro Uribe. A driven man whose father was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnap attempt in 1983, Mr. Uribe was elected Colombia's president in 2002 and vowed to bring the Communist group and other insurgents to heel. His success on that score is a big reason why his approval ratings top 85%.

It is also a largely unsung victory for the U.S., which has lavished nearly $4 billion in mostly military aid on Colombia during the past five years and helped retool the country's army from a demoralized and static force into a powerful fighting machine. At a time when the U.S. has struggled to defeat insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the progress in its own backyard against a powerful drug-fueled Communist insurgency is a noteworthy achievement.

"The U.S. took us by the hand and showed us how to do things," says a high-ranking Colombian military officer. "None of these successes could have been possible without the United States."

March may have been a tipping point for the rebels. During that month, the FARC lost three members of its seven-man ruling Secretariat -- a stunning development considering the rebel group had not lost a single member of its Secretariat to battle in 44 years of warfare. Aside from losing its founder, the FARC's second in command, Luis Eduardo Devia, known as Raúl Reyes, was killed in a controversial cross-border bombing raid in Ecuador by Colombia's army. A week later, Iván Rios, a rising star in the FARC, was murdered by his trusted bodyguard, who then cut off his hand to ensure he would get a $2.5 million bounty offered by the Colombian government.

Another blow was the recovery of thousands of incriminating files found in the computers of Mr. Reyes which show a relationship between the guerrillas and several regional leaders, especially Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez. The files suggest that Mr. Chávez has a strategic plan to put his oil-financed political muscle and millions of dollars in economic aid behind the FARC. The Venezuelan government has denounced the files as fake. But Interpol has analyzed the computers and declared that the Colombian government hasn't tampered with them. In any case, the uproar over the files would likely discourage major gestures of aid from Venezuela in the future.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Colombia update

Friends, it has been awhile since I updated my blog and for that I apologize. Life has kept me busy and a little lazy here!

OK, I finished three weeks of Spanish school in Cartegena. And I also learned the basics of Merengue and Salsa dancing but probably not quite good enough to just show up at a discoteca and start dancing with locals -- although I did dance with some gringas who were also learning the dances. Cartagena was very hot, even for a tropical boy like me, with a high each day of about 35/95, although the nights with the cool breeze from the ocean were just gorgeous. The Colombian family that I lived with was nice and I was able to communicate with them much better after a few weeks.

I made so many good friends at Spanish school, both Colombians and other foreigners from all over the world studying here just like me. We took some trips out of town together and I hope to post some pictures soon.

A bit over a week ago I moved to the beautiful city of Medellin which has a much more moderate climate. The high temperature each day probably averages about 23/74 this time of year, the rainy season. But it has been raining a lot here, especially in the late afternoon.

My Spanish has definitely improved. I can read magazines and newspapers pretty easily. And I can watch a Spanish subtitled movie and watch it and understand it. I can communicate most ideas in Spanish pretty easily. But I cannot understand Colombians talking at full speed, not even close really, nor can I watch a Spanish movie without Spanish subtitles and understand most of it. But I can have long conversations without much pause if they are willing to slow down.

It is probably easier for me to get around a country like this than the USA because there are more buses and transportation options here, I can communicate and ask questions even if I have to ask them to repeat what they just said, and transportation and lodging are cheaper. That being said, I have found Colombia to be somewhat more expensive that southeast Asia. And many fewer people here speak English. I could not imagine traveling here without at least basic Spanish.

Yes, the rumors are true, the women here are gorgeous. And they tend to paint on their clothes, especially jeans which seem to be the outfit of choice. On Friday evening four of us are going out (two guys, two Colombian girls) for a dancing night on the town. Hmmm . . . I am thinking of taking more dancing lessons before then as they are really good!

So far, it has been generally safe here. About what I would have expected. I do know two foreigners who got drugged (drinks spiked) and then got their wallets stolen (they woke up hours later in a random hotel lobby, they are fine now) but, then again, they got into the car of someone they met at a bar at 1 AM in the morning. There does not appear to be much police corruption here compared to other countries. Generally, people can walk at night here without issues. Based on my travel experience, I think that Quito and Rio de Janeiro are both much more dangerous. OK, that is it for now, more later.