Colombia’s presidential transition was far greater than anything anyone could have thought: Uribe’s Dauphin, as he was so many times called by foreign media, turned out to stray away from “uribismo”, and this has actually caused the raged of the ultra-right wing uribists, perhaps thinking of labeling the successor as a traitor.
Santos differentiates from his predecessor in some ways: First and foremost, his family is of the traditional political actors in the country, whereas Uribe’s family was more attached to the land and at most entrenched in regional politics. Second, Santos’ view of the government is quite different, in particular his views about foreign policy and the international arena differ from Uribe’s (to everyone’s surprise), who was more focused on national policies and tended to isolate Colombia from the region. Third, Santos is not a hardliner as Uribe was, and the iron fist of the government has somewhat softened.
It is actually quite interesting to see that, for the first time in many years, a President is actually doing his job quite well: He has elected a very good ministerial cabinet and he’s letting them do their job without much interference. Most certainly, Santos has surprised the country in the good way he has managed most of the country’s foreign affairs.
Just when he was leaving office, Uribe instructed his Minister of External Relations, Jaime Bermudez, to make accusations in the OAS aimed at Venezuela and how it was harboring terrorists. Chavez reacted as could have been expected (he had become quite predictable), ending diplomatic relations with Colombia. Bermudez explained that it had to be done: The new government should start with a clean slate and all the possibilities open to it.
To everyone’s surprise, at the very beginning of the Santos administration, both presidents were talking again so as to normalize relations and strive for a partnership agreement that would be mutually beneficial. Chavez, as many times before, started to say how both countries should be brothers (with Uribe, he said that we were fortunately doomed to being neighbors). Many factors could explain this new situation:
From the Colombian perspective:
- First, the naming of Maria Angela Holguin, former Ambassador in Venezuela, as Minister of External Relations is a key move for bringing Colombia and Venezuela together.
- Second, although Colombian entrepreneurs have started to divert their exports to other markets in the region, namely Central America and the Caribbean, these new markets are just not enough to replace such a big trade relation. Thus, the need for the Venezuelan market is still present in Colombia.
- Third, Venezuelan delayed payments are important enough to make an effort in making the cash flow. This, of course, is not very beneficial for Venezuela because of their currency issues (it would mean an even high inflation).
- Finally, normalizing relations with Venezuela is key to recovering Colombia’s place in the region, rejoining the Latin American brotherhood and furthering Santos’ agenda of inserting the country in the international arena once again.
From the Venezuelan perspective:
- First, whenever you have hell within, you have to search for the devil outside so as to convince your people that all the evils are caused by an external factor. This time, the devil has left power and the new president’s actions haven’t enabled Chavez to designate Santos as the new devil. They probably never will, as Santos has proven to be quite diplomatic (something he surely wasn’t when he was Defense Minister).
- Second, Venezuela is starving: Most of the products that it imported from Colombia were food and consumption goods. The tense relation with Uribe made him choose other providers, such as his Argentinean and Brazilian friends. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be enough, moreover because these two countries were already setting their minds on Asia, not on Venezuela. A Venezuelan friend told me that, when she lived in Caracas, most, if not all, of the products found in her kitchen were of Colombian origin. The grocery shortage was a desperate time for the Venezuelans (if it isn’t still), as products wouldn’t make it to the stores or were ridiculously priced.
- Third, Venezuela is crumbling: Chavez’s development programs haven’t gotten the results he expected (could he really expect anything?) and the country seems to be going more and more downhill. The opposition finally had a significant victory in congress, where they stopped Chavez from getting a qualified majority (two thirds). If they continue the good work then the current regime may be voted out of office soon enough. Even though he may still have high oil prices to support his demagoguery and incisive actions in his country and in Latin America (some say that if oil prices suffer a huge drop, Venezuela will immediately collapse), Chavez is running out of options: Not only is the internal situation starting to change for his worse, but Latin America is shifting to the center-right after being disenchanted with the shift towards the left made in the late 1990s and early 21st century.
- Finally, Venezuela has a rough time integrating economically with Asia because it is a Caribbean country. Colombia will be very helpful as an exporting platform towards the Pacific.
Hence, this scenario is that of a mutual dependence and mutual weakness: Neither one is strong enough to do without the other. Both presidents are aware of the situation and are trying to make the best of it.
It is actually nothing new: Venezuela has always been an expansionist country while Colombia has traditionally been careless about its borders and they have had many tense diplomatic moments between them. The difference? Chavez brings about much more press and anger – and more often.
This relation is identical to that of a dysfunctional couple that just can’t move on: Fight because of a lack of understanding and a shared plan, make up with a lovers’ frenzy, then fight again and await with great expectations that new kiss of reconciliation while planning how to stab the other in the back once again.
How long will this new honeymoon last? Since Colombia has had such a good start with Ecuador and is striving to fare well in regional multilateralism, the chances for a fight are slim. Nevertheless, Venezuela’s nuclear project looks promising: It may definitely cause a fight and Colombia is already matching up by establishing its Nuclear Security Center (it actually already caused a fight, but a slight caressing of the cheek made it all go away).
Author Santiago Sosa studies International Business at Universidad EAFIT in Medellin