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| 8/20/2010 12:00:00 AM

An act of faith

Reestablishing relations with Venezuela was a necessary step, but handshaking is just the beginning of a path full of thorns.

An act of faith An act of faith
The meeting of presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Hugo Chavez last week in the Colombian city of Santa Marta produced a strange combination of joy and skepticism. The United States, along with France and Brazil, led a long list of countries and international organizations who expressed their satisfaction with the reopening of diplomatic relations that Venezuela had broken on July 22. Both in Colombia and Venezuela, welcoming opinions were majority, and the presidential summit was presented as an overcoming stage of recent year’s conflicts and breakdowns between the two countries. Colombian opinion articles joined the chorus as well as leaders who are not among Santos’ closest.

But euphoria was accompanied by skepticism. The contradiction is explained by the fact that the ones who were promoting a new relationship, Chavez and Santos, have always been radical against each other. An article entitled “Venezuela burns…and it can burn Colombia”, written in 2004 by Santos himself, in which he strongly criticized Chavez’ government, circulated through internet the same day of the Santa Marta summit. In addition, during next day’s La Noche TV show in RCN Channel, journalist Claudia Gurisatti broadcasted Chavez recent FARC sympathizing statements. In one of them, Venezuelan leader accepts to offer a minute of silence to honor the diseased guerrilla leader, Raúl Reyes, and in another one he insists that Colombia should recognize a belligerency status to the FARC.

Hugo Chavez, the president who spoke of war, who mobilized troops to the border and who during the last election campaign said "Santos is the worst of the candidates," came to Santa Marta to normalize relations with the former Defense Minister who had led the bombing of Reyes camp in Ecuador and who was the architect of a cooperation agreement with the U.S. military. Santos is responsible of two of the events that complicated bilateral relations the most in recent years. So it is definitely bizarre that the first Santos-Chavez encounter has been greeted with such optimism.

During the eight years of Uribe’s era the two then presidents also held several meetings which were received with equivalently promising atmospheres. If anything characterized relations between Bogotá and Caracas at the time, that were the ups and downs that continuously fueled mutual mistrust and sensibilities: Colombia disliked Chavez’ support for the guerrillas, and Venezuela hated Uribe’s government alliances with the United States against his ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. What guarantees that the good energy in Santa Marta will endure? Were distrust and fears actually vanished in an instant? Can a person like Chavez be trusted? Will something really change or was it all just fireworks?

In the short term, both Juan Manuel Santos and Hugo Chavez have very powerful interests that benefit from the relation reestablishment. The President of Colombia has just taken office with ambitious institutional transformation and modernization agendas: A "new dawn" to which he alluded in his inaugural speech. To engage in an unpredictable conflict with Venezuela would force him to focus all his government’s attention in such a delicate issue, during the first 100 ruling days, which are considered a key test of the reform program feasibility.

On the external front, Santos –a pragmatist- should find a method that releases him from a game of alliances with Chavez opponents, which would isolate him from a significant group in the region that sympathizes with Chavez –like the ‘Alba’ countries-, prefer friendly ties -like Brazil-, or that treats the issue with indifference -like Chile-.

In the bilateral aspect, the confrontation has hindered cooperation between Bogotá and Caracas in the confrontation against the guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers, who use the border to mock the government. The trade has collapsed in 80 per cent, and there is an outstanding debt of $800 million USD for domestic colombian industry which Venezuela hasn’t paid.

Tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have also distanced other countries in the region that do not want to take sides. The distension will open spaces to release our foreign policy and will tighten links with other key players both in America and in other continents.

This shift also works for Hugo Chavez. The last months have been the most difficult of his long, 11-year presidency. According to former Colombian Finance Minister Guillermo Perry Venezuelan economy will fall this year by 3.4 percent. It will present the highest inflation in the continent (more than 30 percent), as well as serious structural problems in the oil industry, backbone of that country’s economy. Social unrest has made the president's popularity fall to levels of around 40 percent, the lowest point since he came to power. John R. Thomson, a researcher and journalist who visited Venezuela for three weeks, believes "it is possible that Venezuelan economic problems soon will end 11 years of Chavez’ misrule."

The Venezuelan opposition expects that in next September’s legislative elections they can approach to a 50 percent share. Then they could throw a political strategy towards winning the presidential ones in 2013. Not the best time for a conflict with Colombia, and it is very unlikely that the public will receive anti-Colombian rhetoric with sympathy. Former Venezuelan Minister and editor at ‘Tal Cual’ newspaper, Teodoro Petkoff, said in an interview with RCN that "the opinion is so polarized that neither the pro-Chavez ones will stop being pro-Chavez, nor will the anti-Chavez cease to be anti-Chavez, because of the Colombia issue" .

Instead, the two presidents have surely learned a lesson after arriving to rupture of relations extremes. Unrest among the border population, international pressure and the conflict risks aren’t comfortable for any government. Nor is it true that the trade drop of 7,000 million dollars in 2008 to almost 1,000 million in 2010 has no negative consequences likewise in both countries. The shortage of essential commodities in Venezuela hit the daily nutrition of millions of people. And in Colombia, although the total value of exports has increased, this is due to the good oil prices, to coal and to the increased sales to the United States. But small and medium-sized companies which worked for the neighboring country’s market are strongly hit. They could hardly get their products to countries different from Venezuela. It is estimated that the crisis with Chávez has left more than 500,000 unemployed.

But Santos-Chavez summit doesn’t differ from previous ones only on both countries’ current situation. The bet also lies in a change in how from now on bilateral issues are going to be conceived and handled. Foreign ministers María Ángela Holguín and Nicolas Maduro, with the presence of former Argentinean president Nestor Kirchner, designed a mechanism to diversify binational portfolio, and to ensure future meetings using discreet and diplomatic instruments. There will be five new committees, dedicated to security, infrastructure, trade, payment of outstanding debts and attention to the border population. Its composition, functions and working methods will be negotiated at a foreign minister meeting.

It appears that the governments of Juan Manuel Santos and Hugo Chavez have the political will to turn the page of past tensions and to take full advantage of the opportunity that has been now opened.

At the starting point, both sides made concessions. Chavez agreed that he plays no role in the management of Colombia's policy against the guerrillas and that the military cooperation treaty with the United States is a sovereignty matter. Colombia, meanwhile, that had always insisted on linking the Organization of American States to handle tensions with Chavez, accepted the UNASUR approach and of its General Secretary, Néstor Kirchner, who until now were better viewed in Venezuela.

The big question is whether the Santa Marta agreements will be effective at addressing the three major problems that have damaged relations between Colombia and Venezuela: mutual suspicion, Colombia's alliance with the United States and Chavez support to Colombian guerrillas.

On the first point, the confidence related one, there is a tendency to avoid seeking a 'personal chemistry' and replace it with institutional security. Santos and Chavez know their respective and mutual pasts as well as their political positions. They do not expect false coincidences. Colombia has a renewed foreign policy which is not limited to special alliances with the United States. It also aims to come closer to other Latin American countries. This message largely explains Chavez’ conciliatory tone. As to Santos, he surely feels relieved that the UNASUR witnesses the last agreements. If Chavez fails, he would damage its relations with Brazil and Argentina, which are countries of great importance to Venezuela. Fidel Castro’s intervention with calls for improved relations also helped, since Chavez considers the Cuban as his master.

The Colombian-American military agreement issue went to the background. The Venezuelan president downplayed the issue during the press conference he gave in Santa Marta, not because he changed opinions on the matter, but because probably he knew the information that has leaked in the Colombian media, concerning that Colombia’s Constitutional Court would probably block the agreement, as it later did. In any case, at least for now, Chávez sheathed the sword he’d taken a year ago when he froze relations as a protest against the agreement.

And finally there is the complex issue of Chavez supporting the FARC. The evidence presented by Colombia to the OAS Permanent Council confirmed information that had been partially met, demonstrating that there are Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela and that the guerrillas use their territory as a strategic rear.

There’s no doubt about this links, which were unacceptable to Colombia under Uribe’s government or to Santos’ one. What may now happen is that Chavez put aside its explicit support for the FARC and the ELN, in order to return better relationships with Juan Manuel Santos’ government and to avoid problems with other Latin American countries. This isn’t a disposable hypothesis, which is reinforced by Chavez’ later statements, saying that "the Colombian guerrilla has no future by the means of arms" and in which urged the FARC to release all hostages. According to Petkoff, "these statements are to be taken seriously."

But if recent year’s support is actually proved, and even if there’s a willingness to abandon them, it is very unlikely that the neighboring government launches a military campaign to defeat the Colombian guerrillas or to sack them out of its territory. This would be acceptable for Colombia, but it wouldn’t meet Venezuelan political will or military capability. The commission created by the presidents, which will be headed by defense ministers, will play a definitive role in resolving this issue, which undoubtedly will remain as the greatest possible obstacle to what’s been agreed in Santa Marta.

There will also be other politically natured problems. Experience makes us be careful with what can be expected from Hugo Chavez, a president whose volatile opinion is driven by emotions. Santos, meanwhile, faces a radically anti-Chávez domestic public opinion, in which the Uribe-blooded backbone of his electoral victory does not like the diplomacy the current president has decided to use. It is known that Santos likes big bets, even if they involve risks, and its policy towards Chávez's Venezuela is coherent with that spirit. For now, it is an act of faith.



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