Feuding neighbours

Will Colombia’s new leader ease tensions with Venezuela?

Getty Images

Their relationship has long suffered from bristling tensions, poisonous spats, and a lack of trust. But just as hopes were rising for an end to the acrimony and the turning of a new page, Colombia and Venezuela’s governments are once again embroiled in a blistering exchange of words.

Last week, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s administration declared it has evidence, including satellite photos, videos and intelligence gleaned from guerrilla deserters, that top rebel leaders from both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are seeking refuge in guerrilla camps in Venezuela. Like clockwork, the assertion unleashed a maelstrom of cross-border turbulence.

Colombia’s strained relationship with its neighbour is considered a top concern for the country’s president-elect, Juan Manuel Santos, when he replaces Uribe, who steps down after eight years in power, on Aug. 7. But the intensified tensions will make the recuperation of Colombia’s relations with its neighbour an even more challenging task for the new leader. “This latest action of President Uribe could even further deteriorate relations between Colombia and Venezuela, but I hope it will be of a temporary nature because Santos, as much as [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez, wants to open the doors to diplomacy,” said Alfredo Rangel, the director of the Security and Democracy Foundation.

As Colombia requested an extraordinary session at the Organization of American States this week to address its claims, Venezuela vehemently rejected the allegations and recalled its ambassador from Bogotá, while Chávez said he will no longer attend Santos’s inauguration. The Venezuelan leader threatened to cut all ties and stop all imports “if Colombia continues with its madness.”

This latest spat follows years of increasing tensions between Caracas and Bogotá that have resulted in a freeze of diplomatic relations and a steep plunge in bilateral trade once valued at US$7 billion annually. Tensions spiked when Colombia signed a controversial agreement last year allowing the U.S. an increased foothold on seven military bases. Chávez claimed the deal threatened Venezuela’s national security, and shut the border to many imports, including animal and vegetable products.

Nowhere are the consequences of Uribe and Chávez’s sparring felt more than along the 2,200-km Colombian-Venezuelan border. A half-hour drive inland from Cúcuta, a bustling Colombian border city of close to a million, 15 men machete their way through swaths of sugar cane under a searing sun. There used to be 150 of them. But sugar cane was one of the imports Venezuela banned in October 2009, following the U.S.-Colombia military base agreement. As a result, the sugar cane co-operative these men belong to, Coope­caña, saw its profits drop 80 per cent last year. (Colombian exports to Venezuela were down 69 per cent in May compared to the same period last year, according to Colombia’s Department of National Statistics.) “The decisions are made in Bogotá, but without knowing the effects of this conflict here on the border,” said Maritza Contreras Joya, an accountant for Coopecaña, whose father and grandfather cut cane.

With much of the cross-border friction due to a clash between two big personalities, there are hopes a change in Colombia’s leadership will restore commercial relations. “The relationship has to become depersonalized,” says Socorro Ramirez, a Venezuela expert at Colombia’s University of Rosario’s Observatory on Venezuela. “The new government has to look to institutionalize its relationship with Venezuela.” Santos has already given nascent indications that he will choose diplomacy with Venezuela over Uribe’s confrontational style. He has selected a highly respected former ambassador to Venezuela as foreign minister, and already instructed her to seek talks with Chávez’s administration.

But many Colombian analysts consider their government’s release of information on Venezuela as Uribe’s rejection of the diplomatic path Santos wants to take. Still, while Uribe’s latest jab at Venezuela may mean Santos inherits an even more strained relationship, it may also open doors for the incoming president as he distinguishes his approach from that of his predecessor. Chávez has expressed his desire to normalize relations, and has asked Santos to separate himself from Uribe. “This situation has created difficulties, but I think Chávez will give Santos the chance to supersede this current bout of tensions,” said Rangel.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.