Two neighbouring countries. Two governments with diametrically opposed ideologies and allies, administering territories where the rule of law does not govern, wolverines of armed groups, economies
Two neighbouring countries, two governments with diametrically opposed ideologies and allies, administering territories where the rule of law does not govern; wolverines of armed groups, illegal economies, corruption, social crises and geopolitical interests of all kinds. Colombia and Venezuela have lived in a continuous confrontation for a year. The unstable mix is being very agitated in recent months, and many fear that the continuous attacks will blow it up in 2020.
It is the worst moment in relations between two countries with great historical disputes, revived at the beginning of the century by former presidents Álvaro Uribe and Hugo Chávez.
In 200 years, none of the conflicts between the two nations ended in war, the dialogue prevailing, but the situation has deteriorated in such a way that some experts no longer rule out that still very unlikely option, sponsored, on the other hand, by the sectors more warlike of both countries.
‘Orange Alert’ in Venezuela
“I have first-order information that a set of provocations is intended for an armed conflict, for an armed dive in the Colombian-Venezuelan border, to divert attention from the popular rebellion of Colombians and Colombians against Iván Duque,” said the past November 30, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, referring to popular protests that took place those days against the Government of the neighbouring country.
Caracas declared, that day, an ‘orange alert‘ and armed it’s civil militias with 13,000 new rifles.
It was the second time in three months that something similar was happening. Maduro already declared the same alert in mid-September. On that occasion, Venezuela came to deploy about 150,000 soldiers, in addition to tanks, armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft defence missiles, on the border with Colombia.
Caracas then denounced having detected, in the previous months, up to 42 actions to attack the country, after the Colombian leader, Duke, accused his neighbours of sheltering the commanders of the Colombian guerrilla groups.
“There are possibilities of a conflict between Colombia and Venezuela. There are reasons, and also conditions. What happens is that, for now, those reasons and conditions do not seem to be sufficient for an armed outcome to occur,” says Alexander Campos, professor of the Central University of Venezuela. “The conflict may not reach the open military route, but it is very likely that we will see many episodes of armed or police violence before we escalate to another level,” the investigator adds.
The focus of tension
One of the biggest sources of tension in recent months has been Colombia’s decision to activate the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, a pact signed in 1947, during the first years of the Cold War, by the countries of the continent. “With the activation of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, which brings sanctions, any aggression against a member country is an aggression against all of them, ” said Colombian President Iván Duque last September.
Of all the members of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, only Uruguay voted against its activation. But after the victory of the Uruguayan right-centre in the November presidential elections, its position may change. In the opposite direction Argentina could move, after the return of Peronism to power. Cuba, for its part, was absent from the vote and the Dominican Republic abstained.
Venezuela, which had already withdrawn from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance in 2013, fearing that the mechanism would be used to justify a foreign invasion of the country, criticized this activation and asked the UN Security Council to neutralize it.
The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance imposed, at the beginning of December, financial sanctions and travel restrictions on Nicolás Maduro and 28 of his collaborators, without supposing, for the moment, the beginning of any conflict. “No one gets into Venezuela. It was a meeting of fantasies and Clowns. They have not been able, nor will they be able to,” Maduro said at the beginning of December.
The escalation of tension is leaving crosses of serious accusations between the two countries, such as criticism against Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó for a series of photographs with two of the leaders of ‘Los Rastrojos’, an organized Colombian criminal group that operates on the border with Venezuela
Those individuals would have helped the Venezuelan deputy to cross to Colombia, through a path used for smuggling, to get his assistance to the concert ‘Venezuela Aid Live’, held on the eve of the failed entry of humanitarian aid to Venezuela, according to researchers from the region.
Guaidó denied knowing the origin of the two individuals, but not the authenticity of the images.
The Colombian government was hard questioned because soldiers of the presidential guard received the Venezuelan opponent shortly after the photographs were taken. Maduro, meanwhile, took the episode as proof that the international community is preparing an invasion of Venezuela from Colombia.
The photos appeared in early September. A few days later, in the middle of the month, Iván Duque presented at the UN General Assembly several photographs that would demonstrate the presence of soldiers of the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest guerrilla in Colombia after the dissolution of the FARC, in territory Venezuelan.
Caracas reacted by spreading three “precise and concise” coordinates in Colombian territory, where soldiers were supposedly being trained to generate actions in Venezuela.
Both countries falsified data. Journalistic investigations showed that at least two of the images presented by Duke were false – it cost the position to an intelligence charge – and that, of the three coordinates presented by Venezuela, two were on the high seas, and one coincided with the headquarters of the NGO Save The Children in Maicao, where he was not training any soldier to invade Venezuela.
Both leaders, moreover, have not hesitated to launch hard personal attacks. Duke came to compare Maduro with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, accused of crimes against humanity in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and Maduro, meanwhile, has repeatedly referred to Duque as the pig ‘Porky’, a cartoon character.
The FARC in Venezuela
The greatest focus of tension between the two countries is, without a doubt, the presence of Colombian guerrilla groups in Venezuela.
Alias ‘Iván Márquez’, former number two of the FARC, declared, last August, that he was returning to the armed struggle, in a video where he appeared next to a dozen heavily armed guerrillas and accompanied by other important leaders of the extinct guerrilla, such as alias ‘Jesús Santrich’, alias ‘El Paisa’ and alias ‘Romaña’.
Colombian military intelligence hastened to place the entire group in Venezuela, where the ELN headquarters has been operating for years, according to Army researchers.
Those guerrillas would not only have found refuge in Venezuela but a great source of income, due to drug trafficking and also to the strong illegal mining activities of gold and coltan present in the border regions with Colombia, according to various researchers.
The members of the Neogranadine guerrillas would be present in up to eight states of Venezuela, according to the ‘Insight Crime’ portal.
“The presence of the ELN and the FARC dissidents in Venezuela is not a decision of the Maduro regime, but is a line inherited, like many others, from the Chávez regime and the alliances woven into the Bolivarian revolution. We must remember, of course, the proximity that the ELN has with the Cuban regime, which makes Venezuela have the obligation to play a fundamental role as one of the shelters and financier of its support, “says Nastassja Rojas, dean of the Faculty of Government of the Colombian University Santo Tomás.
“This allows Maduro to strengthen control of the Venezuelan territory, as they have been doing with the Collectives. All these armed groups allow Venezuela to have parallel forces to the institutional ones in case they need them in a possible internal confrontation, or with another country. However, they fail to see that what begins to be generated in Venezuela is a fractured territory where each zone is controlled by a different group,” adds the analyst.
Recruitment of Venezuelans
Some have proposed, from Colombia, to carry out military missions in Venezuela to capture or ‘eliminate’ the FARC dissidents allegedly established in the neighbouring country.
What many fear in the coffee country is that FARC dissidents and ELN form an alliance, as Márquez already claimed, and that they operate from the neighbouring country.
Hugo Acero, the new security secretary of the city of Bogotá, sees this option as remote. “In certain territories, in the past, there were alliances between the FARC and the ELN, but also many confrontations, including armed, between both groups, for the control of territory and illegal business. Today the thing is much more difficult, because the ELN it has territory and more than 2,000 men, but the FARC dissent commanded by Marquez has neither territory nor fronts. It would be a very unequal dialogue. The ELN is not interested,” the expert believes.
What the researchers do say is that the dissidents – both Marquez’s group and others – would be recruiting Venezuelan members, which could already account for up to 10% of its more than 2,000 members. They would have been attracted with food, clothing, money, shelter and even products such as mobile phones, in their escape from the Venezuelan economic crisis.
The presence of criminal groups, also Venezuelans, on the porous border of 2,219 kilometers is a focus of constant tension between the two countries.
The situation of the security and social conflict in the vast territory is very worrying, especially in areas such as the Colombian Catatumbo, where the large production of coca and cocaine, which partly goes to the US and Europe through Venezuela, according to researchers, has led bloody disputes between armed groups.
Thousands of Venezuelans fleeing the political, social and economic crisis of their country leave every day along the porous border.
At least 4.5 million people, 16% of Venezuela’s total population, have already left the country, but the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) expects the number could increase to 6.5 million in 2020. the Venezuelan immigration crisis is about to overtake that of Syria, which had 4.8 million displaced in the past eight years.
The vast majority of Venezuelan migrants, at least 1.5 million people, have decided to stay in Colombia, and they have, of course, social, economic, educational, health and labor demands that the coffee country is not economically prepared to face.
“That migration is tolerated by Colombia, which has made praiseworthy efforts to receive and provide temporary assistance to Venezuelans, but at an important cost to the fiscal coffers and with occasional outbreaks of xenophobia in certain very affected locations,” says Iván Briscoe, International Crisis Group analyst.
“For now, the focus of the Colombian Government is to achieve a political transition in Venezuela, so that many of these migrants, not all, return to their homes. But the diplomatic and economic pressure imposed by Colombia has not achieved its end, which is Maduro’s exit,” the researcher believes.
“As a direct consequence of these pressures, especially the US sanctions, the migratory pressure against Colombia is increasing. Bogotá will not alter its pressure strategy and will insist on fracturing and weakening Chavism to promote a transition,” he adds.
The diplomatic encirclement proposed by the US, Colombia, and its allies, concentrated in the Lima Group, does not seem to have had the expected result, however, with the growing popularity and discredit of Guaidó, in cases of corruption.
There is a feeling among experts in Colombian-Venezuelan politics that both countries are two pieces on a geopolitical board disputed by the US, Russia, China and Cuba.
Colombia is, without a doubt, the greatest US ally against the Government of Maduro, which constantly accuses the coffee country of conspiring with the South Command of the North American country to overthrow it, and even threaten its life, something that Colombia denies.
“The role of the US and Cuba in the background of the crisis is extremely important. As the US country imposes more pressure, through prohibitions, sanctions, and other measures, the support, even if tacit, of Cuba to a political openness in Venezuela is reduced,” believes researcher Briscoe.
“Cuba, in principle, would also like a resolution of the political conflict, within Venezuela, in favor of a more stable government, which could be Havana’s future partner,” adds the expert.
“But in a context where rivalry and tension with the US has increased, and with the new Colombian government, since last year, clearly located next to the US and against the Maduro government, Cuba feels that the outcome of the conflict Venezuela, if it represents the end of Chavismo, would be the first step towards a much greater pressure against Havana, and in favor of a political change on the island,” Briscoe interprets.
Octavio Quintero, a Colombian journalist expert in economic and political affairs, believes that a region is a place of geopolitical dispute.
“We could become a scene of international war, of unpredictable consequences, where the United States and its allies, on one side, and Russia and China, on the other, enter to dispute,” he believes.
In any case, all experts see that possibility as remote. The military confrontation could be disastrous for Colombia, since its neighbour has greater military power, with at least 365,000 soldiers and 1.6 million civilian militiamen. In addition, a conflict would entail huge political and logistical costs that both governments cannot face.
Others point out, of course, that both leaders could have incentives to continue the confrontation, due to the social crises they face in their countries.
Duke has seen how hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest in recent weeks, and their popularity has dropped to less than 30%, according to polls. The tension between the two countries will probably be one of the biggest focuses of international attention in 2020.