What are the politics of the recent tensions between Venezuela and Colombia?

The most recent tensions started when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos agreed to meet with former presidential candidate and current Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles. For the Venezuelan government that was an affront because Capriles does not recognize Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Closely on the heels of that meeting Santos announced Colombia’s intention to strengthen ties to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This latter is significant since NATO is the world’s most powerful military alliance.

Venezuela’s entire foreign policy has been predicated on the idea of Latin American unity and recent years have seen significant progress with the creation of the Union of Southern Nations (UNASUR) and the Council of Latin American Heads of State (CELAC). Colombia’s presence and collaboration has been an essential element of this and their moving closer to NATO could throw a wrench in regional unity.

Part of what has happened is that Juan Manuel Santos is up for reelection in May 2014 and this seems like a move to strengthen his credentials as being tough on Venezuela—both Hugo Chávez and now Nicolas Maduro are very unpopular in Colombia—and close to the United States. Santos was elected as the successor to Uribe. But one of his major policy shifts as president was to reconcile and strengthen ties with Venezuela. This has helped the Colombian economy and facilitated a peace process with guerrilla groups but included sacrifices such as pulling out of a deal with the United States to have US military presence at Colombian bases.

This of course has hurt Santos with the right wing of his coalition. More recently Santos took a lot of heat within Colombia for quickly recognizing Maduro’s electoral victory. Over the coming year we can expect him to carefully distance himself from Venezuela while seeking to not undermine relations. The FARC recently came out with a statement suggesting the Colombian elections be postponed for a year to facilitate peace negotiations. There was never any chance this would be taken seriously but it was a way for them to publicly press Santos to not play politics with the peace negotiations.

For Maduro this is a problem. He is facing economic and political problems at home and international relations represent a source of strength for him. Improved relations with Colombia were an important entry on his curriculum vitae as foreign minister and were an important sign that Venezuela could collaborate with non-leftist countries. The Maduro government orginally came out swinging wildly after the Santos-Capriles meeting but then turned around and astutely sought reconciliation with the US. This was a sort of strategic triangulation. Colombia’s meetings with Capriles and announcement that it was seeking to strengthen ties to NATO essentially represented a move towards the US. Venezuela turned around and themselves strengthened ties to the US which essentially reduces the significance of Colombia’s moves.

Is there any truth to Venezuela’s recent claims that the Venezuelan opposition has purchased 18 war planes to be located in Colombia and that they captured nine Colombian paramilitaries conspiring to kill President Maduro?

Of course stranger things have happened and from the outside it is impossible to know without actually seeing the evidence. But neither claim seems likely. Eighteen warplanes, depending on the model and whether they were used or new would cost somewhere between $250 million and $1 billion and it is hard to imagine who in the Venezuelan opposition would be willing to put forward that much money for such a venture. Any actual belligerent action would require extensive ground support, ammunition and ground troops. This does not seem plausible even if it were free.

Paramilitary conspiracies against the Venezuelan government are, of course, a possibility. But the timing seems unlikely. Assassination attempts usually come from groups who feel threatened by strong leaders that oppose their interests. But Maduro has struggled in his first two months and many people in the opposition and in Chavismo doubt he will finish his term. It’s not clear why right wing opponents of the Venezuelan government would want to take him out violently.

Venezuela has a long and porous border with Colombia which means in states close to that border there is extensive presence of guerrilla, paramilitaries and all sorts of irregular groups involved in contraband, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. Any given day of the week the Venezuelan armed forces could round up some paramilitaries or other irregulars and accuse them of whatever they want. So it would require some real concrete evidence beyond mug shots to make this story plausible.

How is this affecting the Colombian peace process?

Venezuela has been a key actor in the Colombian peace process which has most recently seen progress in talks in Havana, Cuba. As a key leftist government in the region, it has the ear of the FARC and their presence in the talks is important. Venezuelan officials have played an indispensable role in convincing FARC leaders to participate—including tasks so concrete as convincing them to leave the jungle and board the aircraft that would take them to the talks. When Santos met with Capriles, Maduro portrayed it as a betrayal for all of Venezuela’s work in favor of peace in Colombia, and recalled Venezuela’s envoy to the talks, Roy Chaderton. However, the following week he said he was not going to let this get in the way of the peace process and returned Chaderton to Havana.

What explains the frequent tensions between Venezuela and Colombia?

More than separate countries Venezuela and Colombia are like siblings who share history and culture and whose economic well-being is strongly intertwined. As such their relationship oscillates between friendship, rivalry and competition. After independence from Spain in the 19th Century Colombia and Venezuela were actually part of the same country: La Gran Colombia. And still today there are many extended families that cross the borders with brothers, sisters and cousins of differing or dual nationalities. Culturally they share the same mixture of Andean and Caribbean culture.

Economically Colombia and Venezuela are leading trading partners for each other. Until 2011 Venezuela was part of the Andean Community of Nations and Colombia was a key market for Venezuela’s non-traditional exports. Colombia is a big provider of food imports for Venezuela. In 2009 President Hugo Chávez closed the border to commerce with Colombia which seriously hurt the Colombian economy, more than it did Venezuela. Now with scarcities in Venezuela the tables have turned somewhat and Venezuela is in a more vulnerable economic position and will want to avoid breaking off commercial relations again.

If history, culture and trade tend to unify Colombia and Venezuela, politics and security tend to drive them apart. Colombia is one of the handful of countries in the region in which there has been little evidence of the regional leftward turn. While leftists such as Hugo Chávez, Lula da Silva, Nestor Kirchner and Rafael Correa were elected and supported elsewhere on the continent, Colombians elected and supported rightist Alvaro Uribe. While South American integration was a key element of this leftward trend, Colombia solidified relations with the US with Plan Colombia including anti-drugs strategies and military cooperation. Thus Colombia has been a weak link in Venezuela’s regional plans.

As well, Colombia’s internal conflicts have spilled over into Venezuela and are in turn facilitated by poor relations with Venezuela. Colombia’s triadic violent conflict between guerrilla groups such as the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces and the National Liberation Army, the rightwing paramilitary groups, and the Colombian Armed Forces spills over into Venezuela. This of course causes problems on the Venezuelan side and complicates efforts by the Colombian government to eradicate irregular forces leading them to accuse Venezuela, not without reason, of collaboration or at least undue tolerance.

And finally, Plan Colombia has combated drug trafficking in Colombia but has essentially led to a rerouting of drug trafficking through Venezuela (and other countries) causing serious problems in Venezuela with corruption and violence.