President-elect of Colombia, Petro promises open border with Venezuela; see what to expect from the two countries’ relations | World

President-elect of Colombia, Gustavo Petro said this Wednesday (22) through Twitter that he contacted the government of Venezuela and will reopen the border between the two countries, which has had several phases of partial and total closure in recent years.

“I communicated with the Venezuelan government to open the borders and restore the full exercise of human rights in the area,” Petro tweeted.

By winning Sunday’s election (19), Petro became the first left-wing president elected in Colombia. He did not make it clear whether he had communicated directly with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro — who had sent a message congratulating him on his victory. But Venezuelan Foreign Minister Carlos Faria said Caracas hopes to “build a new era” in the relationship between the two nations.

Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez at the victory celebration, on June 19, 2022 — Photo: Daniel Munoz/AFP

The two countries’ border was closed in 2015 by the Venezuelan government after a clash between Venezuelan security forces and civilians, which Nicolás Maduro attributed to “paramilitarism” in Colombia and for which he blamed then-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who denied the allegations.

In the following years, the situation gradually normalized, but in 2019, Venezuela once again closed the border, amid an escalation of tensions between the governments of Maduro and Iván Duque.

The 2020 pandemic caused Colombia to close its borders in March of that year, although it reopened them in June 2021.

The international bridges Simón Bolívar, Santander and Unión between the department of Norte de Santander (Colombia) and the state of Táchira (Venezuela) were closed. Other passages, however, such as Maicao, in the department of La Guajira (Colombia) and Maracaibo, in Zulia (Venezuela), were mostly open.

Diplomatic relations between Caracas and Bogotá had been seriously degraded since 2019, when the Colombian government recognized opposition Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s “legitimate president”. Guaidó tried to overthrow the Maduro regime with international support, but he failed, and the fact is that power remained in the hands of the Chavistas, so it is with them that practical measures such as border issues would need to be defined.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro during a press conference at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas on Monday (16) – Photo: Reuters/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria

The two countries share a line of more than 2,200 kilometers of borders. It is estimated that more than 2 million Venezuelans have sought refuge in the neighboring country in the last five years.

Until the crossing was closed, thousands of Venezuelans and Colombians routinely crossed it for commercial, educational and health activities. But because they are very porous, the borders also favored illegal actions by drug traffickers, smugglers and guerrilla groups.

President-elect Gustavo Petro said he will restore relations with Venezuela under Nicolás Maduro after three years of rupture and serious accusations exchanged between Caracas and Bogotá.

Ideology or pragmatism?

Petro, who assumes the presidency on August 7, raises fears among many Venezuelans who associate him with Chavismo, although the former guerrilla fighter kept his distance from the Maduro government during the election campaign, even classifying it as a “dictatorship”.

Who is Gustavo Petro?  Ex-guerrilla becomes Colombia's first leftist president

Who is Gustavo Petro? Ex-guerrilla becomes Colombia’s first leftist president

Venezuela, which has frequently accused the current president of Colombia, Iván Duque, of coup d’etat plans and even assassination against Maduro, in a statement congratulated the leftist leader’s victory and expressed “the firmest will to work on building a renewed stage of integral relationships”.

Caracas broke ties with Bogotá in 2019 after Duque recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is now in limbo, as president in charge of Venezuela. It was the worst moment among these neighboring countries, which have always had ups and downs, especially in the last 20 years with the entry on the scene of Hugo Chávez and Álvaro Uribe.

There are no consulates or direct flights and the border remained officially closed between 2019 and October 2021, which collapsed bilateral trade.

“Diplomatic relations cannot depend or focus on simple ideological patronage,” historian Ángel Lombardi, a professor at the University of Zulia (LUZ), told AFP on the border with Colombia.

“If common sense prevails, they will have a relationship based on pragmatism and common interest.”

“New times are on the horizon,” celebrated Maduro on Twitter.

“The relationship with Venezuela changes radically with the simple fact that the oligarchy ceases to govern” in Colombia, Diosdado Cabello, Chavismo’s number two, said at a press conference on Monday.

Migration, key issue

Migration, border security and trade are high on the agenda. The migration issue is crucial, as thousands of people cross the border line daily.

Colombia welcomes two million of the six million Venezuelans who migrated due to the crisis in their country, which Duque regularized so that they can work and access public services.

“The migrant population, today mainly Venezuelan, will receive dignified and respectful treatment in human rights,” Petro promised in his government plan.

The normalization of relations, on the other hand, would boost trade, which was close to US$7.2 billion in 2008, but collapsed with the partial closure of the border in 2015 and total closure in 2019.

The Colombian-Venezuelan Chamber manages projections of US$800 million to US$1.2 billion in 2022, after last year the figure was around US$400 million.

“A new curtain rises,” Wladimir Tovar, leader of the Venezuelan employers’ association Fedecamaras, in the border state of Táchira, told AFP. “With Colombia there has always been a close relationship,” he added.

However, the region is the scene of clashes between armed groups and public forces, amid complaints from Bogotá that Maduro harbors FARC dissidents, ELN guerrillas and drug traffickers. O Socialist president denies and accuses Duque of sending paramilitaries to destabilize Venezuela.

A file photo shows members of the guerrilla group (ELN) at a training camp on the banks of the San Juan River in Colombia (Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP/Arquivo)

Duque was leading diplomatic pressure in the region to remove Maduro from power, cause that has been losing fans. Sunday’s election result joins the left’s return to Argentina and, possibly, if polls are confirmed, to Brazil in the coming months.

The situation leaves Guaidó in a bad position, increasingly weakened, although he retains Washington’s support.

Colombia was one of the main destinations for Guaidó’s allies who went into exile because of criminal prosecutions or investigations in Venezuela, such as his former “Minister of Foreign Affairs”, Julio Borges.

However, Jesús Esparza Bracho, a law professor at the Rafael Urdaneta University in Maracaibo (Zulia, west), says that the fact that Maduro and Petro are leftist does not imply an automatic alliance.

Venezuelan soldiers begin training near the Colombian border in 2019 photo (Photo: Schneyder Mendoza/AFP)

“Maduro is more aligned with less democratic regimes and this is not necessarily Petro’s line,” commented the expert, who thinks that the next Colombian ruler can be a “catalyst” in the process of political negotiations between Maduro and the opposition, which has been stalled since the last october.

“Instability in Venezuela is a threat to Petro, as Colombian instability was to Venezuela for many years,” he added.

About Abhishek Pratap

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