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Can Colombia and Venezuela turn the page on decades of conflict?

Under Gustavo Petro, Colombians won’t have to wait much longer to catch up with the shift toward renormalization with Caracas

Latin America and the Caribbean

Colombian President Gustavo Petro, left, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Photos courtesy Telesur.

Colombia and Venezuela are two countries with unbreakable geographical, historical, and cultural ties. Indeed, they were once part of the same country, Gran Colombia, which covered much of South America’s northern protuberance. However, striking political conflicts have manifested in catastrophic ways on both sides of the shared 2,000-mile border over the past few decades. The United States has stoked these conflicts at every turn, with tragic human consequences. Fortunately, Colombia’s new progressive President Gustavo Petro has signalled his willingness to reset relations with Venezuela, an act that could have tremendously positive effects for the entire region.

The political instability in both Colombia and Venezuela has deep historical roots. In Venezuela, the contradictions of a highly unequal and exploitative class society in which an unaccountable US-backed oil oligarchy reigned supreme ultimately provoked resistance in the form of the Bolivarian Revolution, the grassroots political project of the poor that elevated Hugo Chávez to the presidency in 1999. Chávez’s promise to redistribute Venezuela’s oil wealth while standing up for his country’s national interests vis-à-vis the US earned him Washington’s ire. US policy planners supported a series of coup attempts against Chávez before launching a campaign of hybrid warfare against his successor, Nicolás Maduro, which succeeded at aggravating the economic effects of the recession that hit the oil-dependent nation after the 2014-2015 drop in global oil prices. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) claims that six million Venezuelans have fled the country since the concomitant onset of falling oil prices and US hybrid war. Millions of Venezuelans sought refuge with their neighbour, Colombia.

Meanwhile, Colombia has been trapped in a state of permanent civil war for almost sixty years. The roots of the conflict go back to 1948, when the assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán sparked protests from his urban and rural supporters and eventually gave rise to a number of peasant-led socialist insurgencies in the countryside. The conflict between the insurgencies and the traditional US-backed conservative elite claims lives to this day. The UNHCR asserts that there are currently 8.5 million Colombians who have been internally displaced by the war, while in 2019 ReliefWeb reports that 360,000 Colombians refugees had sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

Around 220,000 Colombians have lost their lives in the fighting. Meanwhile, right-wing paramilitary massacres of rural populations and targeted assassinations of trade unionists, social activists, and left-wing organizers remain commonplace. In January 2022 alone, the Institute for Development and Peace Studies recorded “13 social leaders murdered, 13 massacres, 3 ex-combatants killed, 214 selective homicides, 98 death threats, 58 homicide attempts, 25 episodes of harassment, 17 forced disappearances, and 16 mass internal displacements.”

The crises in these neighbouring countries were not helped by the fact that former Colombian President Iván Duque broke the previous administration’s ceasefire with the rural guerrillas and joined US efforts to destabilize Venezuela. Alongside Jair Bolsonaro and Justin Trudeau, Duque was Washington’s greatest ally in their numerous coup attempts against Maduro. As Joe Emersberger and Justin Podur point out, if such a coup succeeded it may have provoked a civil war in Venezuela that would have closely resembled the ongoing conflict in Colombia:

Venezuela’s neighbor, Colombia, offers a glimpse into what the future holds for Venezuelans should Chavismo fall to the right-wing opposition. A US victory in Venezuela—the overthrow of Maduro—would bring an end to sanctions. But whatever relief that brings could be completely canceled by the ravages of low-intensity war, the likes of which Colombia has endured as the price for keeping its oligarchy in power.


Thankfully, Colombia’s newly elected president Gustavo Petro is expressing a willingness to mend the fractured ties of the Duque years, an action that would go a long way toward forestalling such a tragedy. In fact, Petro’s openness may just accelerate the regional reintegration of Venezuela following the counterrevolutionary turmoil of the Guaidó-Lima Group era.

In 2019, Duque recognized US-backed coup leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, prompting Maduro to cut diplomatic ties with Colombia. Petro and Maduro have already corrected this breakdown by opening renormalization talks. Following Colombia’s May 2022 election, the administrations of President Maduro and President-elect Petro held respectful high-level talks in Venezuela which augur well for the presidents’ future relationship. After the first contact, Petro announced that “It was a successful and extraordinary meeting…Colombia and Venezuela meet again, in peace and love, looking to the future.” Maduro also described the meeting as a success, adding that “We are sister nations and we have to march together and united to seek peace and integration.”

In the spirit of rapprochement, the two countries agreed to defuse tensions along their shared border. They also announced plans to resume bilateral trade and consular services.

On August 1, Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Carlos Faría met with Álvaro Leyva, Colombia’s future minister of foreign affairs. The representatives signed a bilateral declaration agreeing to repair the countries’ frayed ties. Leyva, the first minister appointed by Petro, is also in favour of negotiating a peace settlement with Colombia’s armed insurgent groups, a position which contrasts starkly with the Duque administration’s policy of violent repression of the left.

On August 8, Petro was sworn in as president in Bogotá’s Bolívar Square. His subsequent speech was suffused with words of reconciliation. “Let’s make that unity dreamed of by our heroes, like Bolívar, San Martín, Artigas, Sucre and O’Higgins, a reality,” he said. “It is not a utopia nor is it romanticism. It is the way to make us strong in this complex world.” During the ceremony, Petro had the sword of Simón Bolívar—an enduring symbol of anti-imperialism and regional unity and the namesake of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution—delivered to the square, despite the fact that the outgoing Duque did not authorize its use in the proceedings.

Maduro was unable to attend the ceremony, as the invitation list was managed by the departing Duque, but he sent Petro his congratulations. He praised the Colombian president’s decision to bring Bolívar’s sword to the inauguration, adding, “I extend my hand to Gustavo Petro to rebuild the brotherhood on the basis of respect and love for the peoples…We have to take advantage of this second opportunity for the good, peace and stability of Colombia and Venezuela. Good luck, President Petro, may God bless you.”

Concurrent with the thaw in Colombia-Venezuela relations, countries around the world are reengaging with the Maduro government. The Lima Group is dead in the water, the Petrocaribe initiative is up and running once more, and the US is allowing sanctions carve-outs for American and European energy companies to invest in Venezuela. Additionally, June 2022 saw Maduro embark on a multi-week tour of North Africa and West Asia, where he signed numerous economic cooperation agreements with Algeria, Turkey, Iran, and more.

Under Duque, Colombia was waiting to catch up with the global shift toward renormalization with Caracas. Under Gustavo Petro, Colombians won’t have to wait much longer.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.

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