As soon as Gustavo Petro assumed the Presidency of Colombia in August, the reestablishment of the Colombian-Venezuelan relations—interrupted in 2019—began. This is a first step in the right direction. However, it will take a long time before relations can return to their former normality and certain dynamics must be taken into account, including historical, institutional, border, migratory and commercial ones. These dynamics have caused the normalization of relations not to reach the desired speed, despite the political will of both governments and the ideological identity of Nicolás Maduro with Gustavo Petro.
Historically, the relations between Colombia and Venezuela have been complex, intermittent and encompassing. At best, they have been characterized by “hesitant cooperation”. The border dispute over the Gulf of Venezuela or Coquivacoa is a constant “threat” to decision makers in both countries.
Against this backdrop, three aspects affect the bilateral relationship (from Colombia to Venezuela): ideology, and with it the role of the political, economic and military elites; the border and the tension over border security; and external actors such as the United States, Russia and China. It should be noted that Colombia has been a great U.S. ally and that its foreign policy derives from that alliance to a large extent.
For years, the Neighborhood Commission—or Presidential Committee for Colombian-Venezuelan Border Issues (COPAF), which was created in 1987—and the Andean Community (CAN) served as an umbrella for the bilateral relationship. In 2006 Venezuela withdrew from the CAN, although Petro’s recent visit to Caracas announced its reinstatement. And the Neighborhood Commission was dissolved with the Bolivarian revolution. COPAF and CAN had contributed to cooperation and confidence building between the two countries.
The normalization of relations has as a background a pendulum between ideologization and pragmatism, as well as a citizen diplomacy that developed between the two countries. The governments of Álvaro Uribe and Iván Duque ideologized the relationship with Venezuela. This was evidenced through Colombia’s actions in the Lima Group together with Juan Guaidó and the humanitarian aid in February 2019. The opposite happens with Juan Manuel Santos and Gustavo Petro, whose relationship is more pragmatic.
With different ideological emphases, the presidential candidates were aware of the need to reestablish relations with Venezuela. The Bolivarian Republic is a neighbor with which Colombia shares 2,219 kilometers and a trade balance, until 2007, of around 8 billion dollars in favor of Colombia.
Before assuming office, Gustavo Petro advanced conversations with Venezuela and started working to normalize relations. After taking office, he announced Armando Benedetti as ambassador in Caracas, while Venezuela assigned Felix Plasencia to Bogota. However, civil society sectors in both countries have questioned these appointments. Benedetti does not know consular or diplomatic dynamics and, in turn, a presidential diplomacy has been strengthened, which hinders the reestablishment of the lost institutionality.
Regarding the border issue, the political, economic and military elites have an idea of the border itself. Due to increasing violence, the diversity of actors in the conflict, the State’s abandonment of the issue and the presence of illegal groups, there has been a tendency to stigmatize this territorial space. Actually, the Colombian-Venezuelan border has different territorial scopes, such as Norte de Santander-Táchira, Guajira, Arauca-Apure, and the Serranía de Perijá-César, which make it necessary to create differentiated public policies even though there are common issues such as security.
The border has the presence of illegal actors, some of which are related to transnational crime and who have controlled the border, especially when it closed in 2015. Likewise, the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla, which began negotiations in Caracas with the Colombian government, is binational. Although it was born in Colombia, it is also located in Venezuela. There are also dissidents of the former FARC and common criminals.
In any case, the illegal crossings, also known as “trochas”, continue to operate. Some are controlled by transnational crime or the ELN. Likewise, the Venezuelan Army and the Venezuelan Civil Guard collect money to legally enter the country. Some populations enter through the traditional “trochas” as they represent a lower cost for them.
The migration dilemma
In Colombia there are more than two and a half million Venezuelan immigrants, according to figures from government agency Migración Colombia. In 2021, the Temporary Migratory Statute was formulated, which seeks to protect the migrant population in irregular conditions.
According to the Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, or R4V Platform, nearly seven million Venezuelans have left the country. Of these, 84% are concentrated in Latin America and the Caribbean, 38% of them are in Colombia. The majority are in Bogotá, the border region of Norte de Santander, Medellín and Cali.
But this has not always been the case. During the last decades of the 20th century, Colombians migrated to Venezuela and many of them stayed to live there. As is the case today with Venezuelans, they came from different labor sectors and socioeconomic conditions, seeking to make up for their families’ shortcomings. The oil boom was a major attraction, while the internal conflict drove out the Colombian population. However, due to the economic crisis in Venezuela, many were forced to return to their places of origin.
Currently, the economic recovery—both in commercial and investment terms—has been one of Colombia’s main motivations for the normalization of relations with Venezuela, since the latter was the main recipient of Colombian products, many of them with added value. For several years, pragmatism and commercial autonomy prevailed.
In 2019, the interruption of relations and consequent closure of the border led to a drop in trade. Connectivity was also hindered, and this was done, to a large extent, illegally. Trade and business diplomacy, however, have been very active. Conversely, Venezuelans have little purchasing power and it will take years to reactivate their productive apparatus. Oil production has also decreased. At the same time, there is distrust on the part of Colombian national and border businessmen, given the lack of payment, which is why it is necessary to reestablish trust in both countries.
Thus, and as we can see, the complete reestablishment of Colombian-Venezuelan relations is not easy. It will be progressive and will require the reestablishment of mutual trust measures. There are many aspects that hinder its materialization, so it will certainly take some time to recover the relationship between the two countries.
*Translated from Spanish to English by Ricardo Aceves