Venezuela and Colombia on Aug. 28 exchanged ambassadors posted in each other’s capitals, marking a return to diplomatic relations after a three-year break. The restoration of diplomatic ties came less than a month after leftist Gustavo Petro’s inauguration as president of Colombia. What will be the most important effects of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Colombia? What will the change mean for Venezuela’s political opposition, which Colombia had recognized as legitimate by Petro’s predecessor? What will the restored relations mean for U.S. relations in the Andean region, and to what extent might Petro serve as an intermediary between Washington and Caracas?
Humberto de la Calle, former Colombian vice president, interior minister and chief negotiator in the peace process with the FARC: “Iván Duque’s government not only broke relations with Maduro but also acted as an advocate of a change of government in Venezuela. There is no doubt about condemnation of that regime, a policy for which it found broad support in the region. However, given the complexity of relations between these countries, which have a very long border, shared commercial interests and complex security situations, many people considered that the leadership of that policy should not have fallen to Colombia. The criticism becomes more acute when evaluating the diplomatic break. Diplomatic relations concern the people and do not imply acceptance of different regimes. The result was the withering of trade ties, an increase of conflict in the border area given the rise in the presence of Colombian armed groups across the border, permitted by the government in Caracas, and the failure to attend to millions of residents on both sides due to the closure of consulates. The re-establishment of relations under the new Petro government therefore is good news. The reactivation of trade is sure to happen. It is also a fact that the consulates will reopen their doors. Hopefully this decision, which comes at a time when Venezuela is encouraging dialogue with the opposition and has re-established contact with the United States, will also contribute to normalizing public order through cooperation mechanisms. It is still impossible to predict the future of this important step.”
Vanessa Neumann, CEO of Asymmetrica and former Juan Guaidó-appointed Venezuelan ambassador to the United Kingdom: “The resumption of diplomatic relations between Colombia and Venezuela is an unfortunate inevitability. While it is no surprise that former M-19 member Gustavo Petro would reach out to fellow self-declared socialist Nicolás Maduro, we must accept that it is the demise of the Venezuelan opposition organized under Juan Guaidó, without resolving the deep suffering of the Venezuelan people who flee by the millions across the border into Colombia, that got us here. Petro needs to work with someone who can do something about the migrants, and that person is not Guaidó; it’s Maduro. Having spent significant time in Colombia this year, I can attest that in February, well before Petro’s election, both business groups and government bureaucrats were all calling for a ‘normalization’ (read: reopening) of the border. Some of the best arguments came from children I met: they routinely crossed the trochas to sell illicit goods and were indentured or extorted by organized crime groups on both sides of the border, as well as border guards. It is time to stop enriching the transnational criminal organizations and the corrupt and bring the border back under state security control, while improving the lives of border communities. Petro’s appointment of Ambassador Armando Benedetti to Caracas, however, inspires little confidence. The malas lenguas call him a political opportunist because he was previously from Uribe’s party. Benedetti was investigated for corruption in 2017 and 2021. Skeptics therefore worry about what deals he might make with Maduro, one of the world’s greatest kleptocrats. Nonetheless, a savvy President Petro will certainly try to position himself as an intermediary between the United States and Maduro, though Washington is doing a pretty good job of going directly to Maduro. To keep Petro from going totally Marxist, expect a more nuanced approach from the United States and an abandonment of the Guaidó-led opposition by pretty much everyone.”
Michael Shifter, senior fellow and former president, and Andrea Colombo, former intern, both at the Inter-American Dialogue: “Not surprisingly, Colombian president Gustavo Petro didn’t waste much time in normalizing relations with Venezuela, severed in 2019. Resetting the Colombia-Venezuela relationship was one of Petro’s key campaign promises. Already, less than a month after Petro was inaugurated, there have been active conversations between Colombia’s ambassador, Armando Benedetti, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Acting more out of pragmatism than ideological conviction, Petro is seeking to re-establish and more effectively manage commercial and migratory flows along the countries’ 1,400-mile border, which is partially controlled by criminal groups. Resuming trade will be crucial for both countries at a time of rising inflation and significant economic problems. The move has the potential to yield economic, humanitarian and security dividends for the new Colombian president and his country. Furthermore, the rapprochement with Venezuela could prove useful for pursuing peace talks with the ELN, another one of Petro’s priorities. But the resumption of relations is risky for Petro, and many are already raising concerns. Unless he keeps political distance from Maduro—who presides over a repressive, authoritarian regime—Petro could further arouse suspicions in Colombia that he will turn the country into ‘another Venezuela.’ Many in the Venezuelan opposition have been disappointed by the policy change but have welcomed Petro’s commitment to protect Venezuelan exiles living in Colombia. The policy shift is drawing attention in the United States as well and, though expected, it could represent a source of strain with Colombia. Alternatively, if Petro is able to proceed cautiously and pragmatically, he could act as a mediator between Washington and Caracas.”
Phil Gunson, senior analyst for the Andes region at International Crisis Group: “The restoration of relations between Bogotá and Caracas is the latest and most important sign that the failed, Trump-era policy of isolating the Maduro government in pursuit of regime change is nearing its end, at least in Latin America. The question is not whether re-engagement is desirable but whether it fosters a gradual, negotiated restoration of constitutional rule in Venezuela. With almost 1,400 miles of a porous, poorly policed border in common, and with 2.5 million Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia, the two countries and their citizens can only prosper through greater cooperation. But none of the complex issues on the bilateral agenda, from trade and migration to organized crime, the environment and irregular armed groups, can ultimately be resolved without a comprehensive political settlement in Venezuela. While President Petro has in the past expressed a desire to help foster such a deal, the early signs are that he is willing to accept Venezuela’s political status quo in the hope of obtaining Maduro’s support regarding issues dear to his government, notably peace talks with the ELN and binational trade. His newly appointed ambassador, Armando Benedetti, has praised Maduro and other key government figures and been dismissive of the opposition’s ‘interim government,’ led by Juan Guaidó. Although there are undoubted humanitarian, economic and security benefits to repairing severed ties, treating issues of democracy and rights within Venezuela exclusively as ‘internal affairs’ could help shore up a government that lacks public support, is cut off from global markets and remains reliant on authoritarian means to manage its impoverished citizenry. Washington needs to work with Colombia and the region as a whole to devise a new Venezuela policy that seeks greater cooperation with Caracas while supporting a political agreement to re-establish growth, stability and rule of law.”
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America: “The security and humanitarian situation on the Colombia-Venezuela border requires a re-establishment of the relationship between the two countries. Human rights, humanitarian and Indigenous groups living in this area have long asked for a bilateral effort to address the multitude of issues affecting their safety, well-being and economy. Guaranteeing effective and safe crossings for the large-scale migration and displacement of Venezuelans to Colombia, requires cooperation so that Venezuelans do not fall into the hands of illegal armed groups who harm them. While that is needed, the fanfare including lots of social media pictures of Colombian Ambassador Benedetti hugging high-level officials linked to serious human rights abuses, sends the wrong message that Colombia is tolerant of grave human rights violations. The optics are not good, nor do they help the causes they purport to support—stopping the exodus of Venezuelans, dismantling illegal armed groups and finding peaceful solutions to both the political and human rights crises in Venezuela, as well as addressing the ELN and other Colombian armed groups.”
On August 7, an important chapter in Colombian-Venezuelan relations that has coincided with the presidencies of Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez will come to an end. These last eight years have been a rollercoaster, with moments of great tension but also occasional pragmatism.