Over the past decade, Colombia-Venezuela relations have been characterized by heated rhetoric and tense confrontations. Yet the election of Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has seen the beginning of a new, more promising chapter in bilateral relations. On June 15, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted a discussion to explore this issue with Rodrigo Pardo, editorial director of Semana magazine, Rafael Nieto, a Colombian political analyst, and Ana María Sanjuán of the Universidad Central de Venezuela.
Throughout his tenure as defense minister, Santos was among the biggest critics of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. His election, less than one month after Colombia severed ties with its eastern neighbor, left some commentators concerned that rising tensions could escalate to war. Relations, though, have gradually improved as both presidents have embraced a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Pardo, Sanjuán, and Nieto agreed that this approach has also led to stronger relations with the international community.
Panelists highlighted advances in both economic and diplomatic sectors. Venezuela has begun to turn over wanted FARC and ELN guerrillas operating in its territory. Commercial trade between the countries is reinvigorated and Venezuela is tackling its enormous debt to Colombia. The countries’ recent cooperation to restore Honduras’ seat in the Organization of American States and on reconstruction in Haiti is also significant. According to Nieto, their decision to share the secretary general rotation for the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) illustrates that “integration is indeed possible.”
Still, as Sanjuán noted, “the biggest challenges lie ahead.” Colombia and Venezuela have a history of rocky relations characterized by short bursts of improvement and deterioration, leaving panelists to question the sustainability of the recent upswing in bilateral relations. Both countries are highly polarized internally and domestic elections could force either president to distance himself from the policies of the other.
The presence of both FARC and ELN in Venezuelan territory has long been a source of friction. Though Pardo doubted that Santos would initiate a Colombian peace process in the near future, all panelists recognized that Chávez’ support of the process would be the key to successful negotiations.
Panelists concluded that while advances have been made since President Santos’ election, serious challenges remain. The future of Colombia-Venezuela relations, according to Sanjuán, lies in the hands of presidents Santos and Chávez.