Left in peace

Can Colombia’s leftist President Petro bring peace to the Colombia-Venezuela border?

It wasn’t so long ago that Colombia’s relationship with Venezuela seemed to be broken beyond repair: the border between the two countries had been closed for 7 years and there had been no diplomatic relations for 4 years.  

Today, Colombia and Venezuela are moving closer, exemplified by the meeting in early November between their respective presidents, Gustavo Petro and Nicolás Maduro. The meeting took place weeks after tensions and security issues at the border eased with the re-opening of the main crossing that connects the two countries after seven years of closure. 

A ministerial-level security adviser in Bogotá outlined the current security situation in Colombia, “Colombia’s security is at one of its lowest points in decades. Not only in the countryside, but also in the cities. There are problems with the guerrillas but also with the arrival of Venezuelan migrants: drug trafficking actors are growing stronger and are spreading across the country. 

Colombia’s security is at one of its lowest points in decades. Not only in the countryside, but also in the cities. There are problems with the guerrillas but also with the arrival of Venezuelan migrants.”

Ministerial-level security adviser, Bogotá

Almost immediately after taking office in August 2022, Petro engaged in direct talks with Caracas as part of his broader plan to bring what he calls “total peace” to Colombia. As Venezuela continues to hold a tacit agreement with the ELN guerrilla group, responsible for criminal activities at the border, Petro wants Maduro to moderate the peace talks between the Colombian government and the guerrillas, which are set to start this month in Cuba. Spain and Chile will be observers of the peace dialogue process. 

Petro aims to resume the conversations started by former President Juan Manuel Santos, after four years in which the government of President Iván Duque refused to engage in dialogue with the ELN. With 70% of guerrilla activities taking place in the jungle border with Venezuela, Petro has taken a pragmatic stance to the negotiations as, six years into the signing of the historic peace agreement with FARC, many regions in Colombia continue to suffer from violence. 

A former official in Colombia’s Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs with experience of the Colombia-Venezuela issue wasn’t sure anything would change, “All the criminal actors that move along the border, even in Colombia, are protected, sponsored, or watched by Venezuelan institutions. In the face of the economic incentives of crime, what counter-incentive does Venezuela have to fight crime at the border? The problem is that no one has thought about the details of this rapprochement.”

In the face of the economic incentives of crime, what counter-incentive does Venezuela have to fight crime at the border? The problem is that no one has thought about the details of this rapprochement.”

Former official, Colombia’s Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs

Despite these challenges, Petro’s initiative has received the explicit support from major international actors, with the EU calling the initiative a “major milestone”, and receiving the green light of the US in a recent private meeting with William Burns, director of the CIA in Bogotá. At home, despite the opposition of right-wing parties, at the end of October, the Congress passed a law which allows the government to hold talks with illegal armed groups, from the ELN to Clan del Golfo cartel. 

A peace agreement has the potential to unlock rural development in the country. In addition to favouring job creation in the regions hit by illicit crop cultivations, tackling violence from armed groups could ease transition and access to the industry of these regions and their population. In addition, the cease of guerrilla activities at the border would strengthen the domestic market, likely raising wages, salaries and, in the long term, foreign direct investment. 

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