Old friends

Venezuela and Colombia re-establish diplomatic relations, what does it mean for the region?

The election of Gustavo Petro as president of Colombia on 19 June 2022 marked a major change for the country as he became the first ever elected left-wing president, spurring policy changes in all fronts. From a foreign affairs perspective, Petro’s recognition of Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela will start off a new era in bilateral relations between Caracas and Bogotá, as former President Iván Duque supported Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president.

On 29 July, Álvaro Leyva, designated foreign minister of Colombia; and Carlos Faria, minister of foreign affairs of Venezuela issued a joint declaration at the border town of San Cristóbal to re-start diplomatic relations. The hope is that this will promote trade and commerce, border security, peace negotiations and stem uncontrolled migration but many observers are not expecting much to change.

“The main question is if the Petro government is doing this to benefit the Colombian people or just to further its political and ideological agenda,” said a former official at Colombia’s Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs.

“The main question is if the Petro government is doing this to benefit the Colombian people or just to further its political and ideological agenda.”

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

Petro’s supporters are optimistically extolling the potential benefits of renewed relations, “Trade in the regions along the border would be boosted, access to Venezuelan energy is advantageous to Colombia. Venezuela would benefit from Colombia agricultural and meat products and the security situation would be improved.”

Critics, such as former government officials, are claiming that these ‘optimists’ are naïve, “Population centres are far from the border so the impact of increased trade would be minimal, Colombia is supposed to be undergoing a transition to renewable energy so buying Venezuelan energy won’t help, even before diplomatic relations broke down Venezuela had a history of not paying for Colombian imports; I doubt this will change and the security situation along the border has always been poor, diplomatic relations or not.”

The building of bridges between Petro and Maduro will put to test US strategy in the region, which has been defined by a War on Drugs that president Petro rejects. The former official at the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs explained, “The US is walking a tightrope in much of Latin America and with Petro’s election they have lost their strongest ally in the region. The US started a strategy of rapprochement with Venezuela earlier in the year to gain access to the country’s energy. In the absence of a strong regional ally I think we will see a more ‘softly-softly’ strategy from the US.”

“The US started a strategy of rapprochement with Venezuela earlier in the year to gain access to the country’s energy. In the absence of a strong regional ally I think we will see a more ‘softly-softly’ strategy from the US.”

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

Petro is moving ahead with his agenda, regardless of the US with promises to overturn some measures such as crop eradication, express extraditions and over-reliance on US security forces. The US Biden Administration remains observant, some would argue absent, while acknowledging potential disagreements but, also, that US drug policy needs to evolve.

The position of the Venezuelan diaspora in Colombia, believed to be in 2.2 million people, remains unclear due to a lack of clear leadership. The former Colombia defence official confirmed, “The Venezuelan diaspora has no power, no leadership and no capacity to influence anything. Some are saying that with improved relations between Venezuela and Colombia the migrants will return but that represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. These people left Venezuela because the conditions for them in the country were intolerable, this hasn’t changed.”

Petro has vowed to reopen the 2,200-kilometre porous border between both countries, infested with armed groups which have recruited desperate migrants taking advantage of their situation. However, Petro’s intention to remove criminal organisations from the border, predominantly led by the Army of National Liberation (“ELN”), could cause tensions with Caracas, that has tacit alliances with some of these non-state armed groups. With so many challenges ahead, Petro will have to show cunning diplomatic skills at a time when Maduro appears to crave for international acceptance.

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