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After three years of rupture, on August 28, 2022, bilateral relations between Colombia and Venezuela were reestablished. This is due to the new approach that Gustavo Petro's administration has given to foreign policy. | EFE

The challenges of Colombia’s foreign policy towards Venezuela

The relationship between these two countries affects regional stability. Less migration, conflict, and injustice will generate greater peace and democratic and economic growth for Latin America.

The Petro administration’s approach to foreign policy, since his first speech, includes projecting Colombia as a leader in Latin America.

Within the administration’s strategy to achieve this leadership, in our view, Colombia’s relationship with Venezuela occupies a fundamental place and covers three fronts. Firstly, to restore bilateral relations between the two. This restoration should focus not only on the recovery of diplomatic and commercial relations between them but also on human rights issues. Secondly, to promote negotiation strategies between the government of Nicolás Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition, with the backing of the international community, to seek a peaceful and negotiated solution to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Finally, Petro’s “Total Peace” political strategy is related to the leadership role that Colombia wants to project, not only in the region but also to the international community. To achieve this policy’s purpose, it is necessary to seek a negotiated solution to the armed conflict in Colombia, which has spread to neighboring countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador. Below, we will explain the challenges that these three aspects of foreign policy imply for Colombia.

This analysis is important because the relationship between these two countries affects regional stability; if they can take steps to calm violence, eradicate illicit economies, alleviate the humanitarian crisis, and promote human rights, the effects will be felt in countries across the region. Less migration, conflict, and injustice will generate greater peace and democratic and economic growth for Latin America.

The restoration of bilateral relations

After three years of rupture, bilateral relations between Colombia and Venezuela were restored on August 28, 2022. This is due to the new approach that the Gustavo Petro administration has given to foreign policy, which, according to its government plan, is based on good relations with neighboring countries through diplomatic channels, dialogue, and regional integration mechanisms, where the recovery of commercial ties plays an important role.

Despite the political goodwill, the restoration of relations poses challenges for both parties. According to the Venezuela Observatory of the Universidad del Rosario, diplomatic institutionalism between both countries has historically been fragile, subordinated to the will of the administrations in power, and not to bilateral agreements that facilitate the resolution of conflicts between the two countries.

In the field of trade relations, the outlook is also discouraging. Although both countries are implementing strategies to facilitate trade, including the signing of agreements, the absence of a multilateral space where both countries converge for dialogue and socioeconomic and commercial integration, as was the case with the Andean Community (CAN)—before Venezuela withdrew in 2006—makes it more difficult to negotiate rules and instruments for the regularization of trade agreements. Latin America lacks strong and cohesive multilateral institutions as seen in other regions such as the European Union and the African Union. This is compounded by the delegitimization and sanctions imposed by the international community on entities linked to the Maduro government, and the risks this poses when engaging in commercial relations with them.

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The pragmatism that has characterized the restoration of relations between both countries is strategic and necessary from economic, commercial, and regional integration perspectives. However, Colombia cannot overlook the serious human rights violations committed by the Maduro regime against opponents, union leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders. To ignore this would be to deny that the repressive power of the Venezuelan state is one of the main causes of its humanitarian, political, economic, social, and human rights crisis. On the contrary, state repression in Venezuela has intensified according to the recent report of the UN Mission regarding the situation in the country. The Petro administration’s strategy should temper its approach to Venezuela with the human rights principles and values it hopes to see reflected in its policy.

Promoting negotiation strategies between the Maduro regime and the Venezuelan opposition

Another strategy of the Petro government has been to promote negotiations between the Maduro regime and the Venezuelan opposition. As a result of this initiative, the leaders of 20 countries met in Bogotá in April 2023 for the International Conference on the Political Process in Venezuela, with the ambitious goal of giving an international impetus to restart stalled negotiations. The Conference arose from a recognition of the sluggish advancement of these negotiations, which began in 2021 in Mexico. In the end, the summit failed to achieve its main goals.

There were three points of consensus that emerged from the meeting in Bogotá. First, everyone agreed on the need to establish an electoral timetable that allows for free and transparent elections, with guarantees for all participants. Second, they agreed that this should go hand in hand with the lifting of various sanctions. Finally, the participants in the Summit agreed that the resumption of negotiations in Mexico should also coincide with the implementation of a fund for social investment in Venezuela.

Although these agreements show consensus among the participating states on some aspects, they do not show significant progress since the international community largely agreed on these points before the meeting. Similarly, the summit failed to achieve the urgent goal of restarting negotiations in Mexico.

But in May 2023, the United States gave the green light to the fund so that the United Nations can manage those resources without vulnerability to seizures by creditors. Although this does not imply that the money will be paid all at once, it is a significant step in the disbursement process. It is likely that President Petro’s push in his interactions with the United States just before and during the conference helped to drive the Biden administration’s decision to protect the fund.

In October 2023, the Unitary Platform of the opposition and the Venezuelan government resumed negotiations and reached two partial agreements. First, to affirm the willingness of both parties to comply with the Venezuelan Constitution and the law, which implies the protection of human rights. In addition, they propose presidential elections for the second half of 2024 and to ensure democratic guarantees for those elections. The second agreement affirmed the commitment of the parties to follow international legal standards on the territory of the Essequibo (a disputed territory east of Venezuela, administered and controlled by Guyana, but claimed by Venezuela) despite Venezuela recently showing signs it does not want to navigate this dispute in line with international standards. They also agree to join in protecting certain Venezuelan assets abroad. Before this date, they had not negotiated since November 2022. In response to these agreements, the U.S. government decided to ease sanctions on Venezuela’s oil, gas, and gold. The Colombian government was present at the meeting and highlighted the role that the Petro administration has played in promoting peaceful coexistence and dialogue between the parties.

Although these advances are very well received by civil society organizations and the international community, including Colombia, several important steps are still lacking from Venezuela to protect human rights and alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Some of these include releasing arbitrarily detained individuals and ceasing to prevent the participation of opposition candidates in the upcoming presidential elections. Although both commitments are far from being fulfilled, particularly because on October 30, 2023, the Electoral Court’s Electoral Chamber suspended the effects of the primary elections in Venezuela and consequently annulled the candidacy of María Corina Machado, who was elected as a representative of the opposition. So Colombia should not stop encouraging and promoting negotiations, which, little by little, can not only improve the political and civil rights situation of the Venezuelan population but also the humanitarian situation, alleviating challenges such as the massive migration of Venezuelans to Colombia.

Total Peace

Another challenge of these three fronts of the Petro government’s foreign policy towards Venezuela lies in its interest in achieving peace in Colombia through Total Peace, a state policy that seeks to advance negotiations with illegal armed groups in Colombia and cross-border groups, including the guerrilla group ELN. However, its design is problematic because it does not incorporate a clear security strategy with a regional focus, which would allow it to confront the new dynamics of social conflict in these territories.

Despite Venezuela’s willingness since 2022 to be the guarantor country in negotiations with this armed group, Colombia faces an additional challenge. Research by Crisis Group, Insight Crime, and Alerta Venezuela has shown that the ELN is a transnational armed group, but does not operate as an insurgency in other countries. This means that its operation, at least in Venezuela, has the consent of the Venezuelan state and acts as a paramilitary force that supports the Maduro regime.

Colombia is betting on negotiations with a country like Venezuela, which lacks legitimacy in the international community due to the humanitarian crisis, corruption, and serious human rights violations. If Colombia wants to seek a negotiated solution to the conflict with armed groups, especially with the ELN, the necessity of Venezuela’s support is clear. The neighboring country must also commit to ensuring that, when a peace agreement is signed with the guerrilla group and other transnational armed actors, it must also be fulfilled and implemented on the Venezuelan side. But more than expectations of Venezuela’s participation, in circumstances where there is already an agreement, the challenge will be how to incorporate the binational nature of the ELN into the negotiations and how to clarify Venezuela’s role, which goes beyond being a guarantor.

It would be of no use to Colombia if this armed group continued to engage in criminal activities in the border area and in Venezuela. If there is no joint security strategy and a certain degree of institutionalism from both States to areas controlled by irregular armed groups, especially those with a transnational character, the Total Peace policy will be a real failure.

These three fronts of Colombia’s foreign policy with Venezuela—the restoration of bilateral relations with Venezuela, the promotion of negotiations between the Maduro regime and the opposition, and the implementation of Total Peace—are neither negative nor wrong. But the manner to carry them out must maintain a human rights approach that recognizes the violations and lack of legitimacy of the Maduro regime while nurturing a relationship with it to alleviate the current humanitarian and migratory crisis. The Petro government must recognize this very fine line and, consequently, adjust the way it advances its foreign policy.

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