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President of Colombia Gustavo Petro attends an event with Colombian Community outside the Queens Borough Hall on September 18, 2022 at Queens Borough Hall, in New York. (Photo: Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress)

Colombia's First Leftist President Charts a New Path on Venezuela

Gustavo Petro has rejected the failed "diplomatic siege" of his predecessors. But he also wants to see a more democratic Venezuela.

Omar Ocampo

 by Foreign Policy In Focus

New Colombian President Gustavo Petro's plan to reestablish diplomatic relations with Venezuela was officially completed this November when Petro met his counterpart Nicolás Maduro in Caracas.

Petro has sent a signal to opposition parties in Colombia and the international community, particularly the United States, to rethink its approach if they hope to improve relations and achieve a successful political transition in Venezuela.

The two met privately, held a press conference together, and released a joint statement.

While critics derided the meeting as just another propaganda spectacle for Maduro, Petro has sent a signal to opposition parties in Colombia and the international community, particularly the United States, to rethink its approach if they hope to improve relations and achieve a successful political transition in Venezuela.

Former Colombian president Iván Duque's ideologically driven policy of putting political and economic pressure on Maduro via isolation and non-recognition—known as el cerco diplomático, or diplomatic siege—did not succeed in its desired goal of regime change. And Duque's recognition of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president only brought Colombia international ridicule, especially after Duque submitted an extradition request for fugitive and ex-Congresswoman Aída Merlano to Guaidó despite the latter not having authority over any official levers of state power.

Petro, on the other hand, has a much more pragmatic albeit optimistic approach.

If Colombia is going to protect its domestic interests and assist in the restoration of democracy in its sister country, it first needs to repair their fractured relationship and dialogue with those who wield actual power so there can be a negotiated solution to the political crisis.

Reopening the Border

The first steps were taken shortly after Petro's inauguration in August when both countries exchanged ambassadors and, a month later, reopened their shared, 1,400-mile border. Petro stated at the time that the restoration of relations begins with the border.

The border's closure had produced a number of negative consequences over the past seven years.

First, binational trade collapsed and regional economies were ruined. The business community on both sides of the Orinoco have been the largest supporters of renewing commercial relations and have been pressuring the political classes of both countries to put an end to policies that impede cargo trade.

They have thus far been pleasantly surprised by the amount of economic activity conducted after two international bridges were reopened in late September. The Colombian Ministry of Commerce, Germán Umaña Mendoza, estimates that imports and exports between the two Andean nations will reach $800 million by the end of December, more than doubling last year's total. He also expects trade to more than double again in 2023, bringing potential trade between the two sister nations at an estimated $1.8 billion.

Second, tens of thousands of daily trekkers were forced to take informal and dangerous routes to cross state lines. The collapse and freefall of Venezuela's economy generated an unprecedented outward migration flow—more than 7.1 million people in seven years—and the use of informal crossings has forced individuals and families to deal with a plethora of criminal organizations. This left Venezuelan migrants and refugees vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, sexual violence, and murder. The reopening of the border is expected to decrease the use of informal routes and increase the usage of legal and safe border crossings.

And lastly, the closure strengthened the dozen or so illegal armed groups that violently compete for control of the drug trade and the contraband networks that operate on both sides of the border. Billions of dollars' worth of gasoline, consumer goods, and narcotics are smuggled each year.

Former researcher and current Senator, Ariel Ávila, commented to Bloomberg that it is highly unlikely that the reestablishment of formal economic relations between Colombia and Venezuela will have a "big impact on areas currently run by criminal gangs." The black market and illicit economies are just too lucrative and a concerted joint effort is needed to dismantle these criminal organizations.

Both Petro and Maduro committed themselves to sharing intelligence and rebuilding institutional capacity to direct joint operations to secure the border and protect vulnerable populations. It is not an easy path, but it must be taken since binational problems require binational solutions.

Promoting Democracy in Venezuela

But what drew the attention of some observers at the November summit was Petro's pro-liberal democracy discourse with Maduro seated right next to him. His speech, coupled with his petition for the reintegration of Venezuela into the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), seems to indicate that he supports the re-democratization and re-legitimization of the Venezuelan state.

What is interesting is that all of this is occurring as the strange experiment of recognizing Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of an interim government is coming to an end. The Colombo-Venezuelan summit was Petro's de facto recognition of Maduro. Meanwhile, the coalition of Venezuelan opposition parties, known as the Democratic Unitary Platform, are reportedly preparing to withdraw their support of Guaidó—and it appears that the Biden administration is going to follow suit come January 2023.

The reason why all of this is happening now is that negotiations between the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition are set to resume in Mexico.

One of the points that they will negotiate is the presidential election scheduled for 2024. The opposition recognizes that Guaidó's ineffectiveness and unpopularity are an albatross, and they plan to hold primaries sometime next year with the hope of selecting an appealing candidate to run against Maduro. But opposition primaries are not likely to occur until before January 2023, so we will enter a new awkward phase where the United States continues to not officially recognize Maduro, but will continue to conduct foreign affairs with him.

Petro has personally asked Maduro to guarantee the opposition's right to participate in the upcoming elections and offered to help mediate talks. He has called for the lifting of sanctions, the release of all political prisoners, and a general amnesty. The intention here is to give Maduro an incentive to hold free and fair elections and begin the process of recuperating the country's economy.

Petro, himself a former M-19 guerrilla, was a beneficiary of a general amnesty in 1992. It led to his demobilization and the formation of a legal political party that he could join in order to participate in the democratic process. From his perspective, a general amnesty could be used as a positive tool to help solve the political crisis and free political prisoners in Venezuela, although the idea was not well received by human rights organizations. They argued that such a proposal  would deny victims the ability to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes against humanity.

The Biden administration appears interested in easing sanctions so Venezuelan oil supplies can enter the international market, but only if the negotiations in Mexico lead to reforms that guarantee free democratic elections in 2024.

Neighbors Working Together

There is an ideological, or rather an idealistic, goal to Petro's rapprochement: the restoration of liberal democracy and the reintegration of Venezuela to the IACHR. He made these demands on good faith and without political preconditions.

It is important to keep a healthy dose of skepticism here. Venezuela rejoining the IACHR is not a foregone conclusion and there is no guarantee that it would abide by the body's recommendations or decisions if it did, a point keenly made by human rights activist Rafael Uzcátegui on his Twitter account. But it would still be a very important step if taken.

Petro is investing a lot of his political capital in reestablishing and rebuilding relations with Venezuela. The confrontational disposition of his predecessor failed and proved to be unproductive. The more hostile Colombia's stance, the more Maduro strengthened his resolve to stay in power, and the more the conditions deteriorated on the border.

Whether Petro's democratic idealism bears any fruit in Venezuela remains to be seen. But regardless, it is simply more beneficial for Colombia to work together with its neighbor and keep diplomatic channels open. This is an undeniable win for both countries and a subtle message to the United States to abandon the unsuccessful, symbolic policies that cause more harm than good.

© 2021 Foreign Policy In Focus

Omar Ocampo

Omar Ocampo is a researcher for the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. He graduated from the University ofMassachusetts Boston with a B.A. in Political Science and holds a Masters in International Relations from the American University in Cairo. His thesis focused on the politics of international oil and humanitarian intervention in Libya.

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