This is the second of a series analyzing Colombia’s neighbors as President Juan Manuel Santos begins his second year in office.
Ever since the independence wars in Latin America, Venezuela has been Colombia’s rival. It is the only country with which there are still border disputes (Nicaragua’s case is just opportunism) and they will not be solved soon. This border is Colombia’s longest and a very difficult one to establish because the borderlands of both countries form a geographical unit, with no clear mountain range or deep forest to divide them. As such, it is Colombia’s weakest border and it is easily crossed by illegal armed groups, thus making it a primary security objective.
It also makes Venezuela a prime commercial partner. Indeed, Venezuela was Colombia’s second trade partner, and the flow of cargo between both countries by land was immense. However, now it’s not even in the top four export destinations because of the great risks that sales entail. Chávez’s currency controls and other issues have made Venezuelan buyers unable to pay Colombian businesses. In addition, the political risk because of the constant struggle between both countries has diverted exports elsewhere. Thus, Colombian businessmen doubt their debts will be paid.
As with Peru, there are many culturalsimilarities between Colombia and Venezuela, even more so because they were once part of the same political unit. Economically, they have a similar history: dependence on commodity exports, one with Coffee and the other with oil. There are, however, four great differences. The first is that the military have had a prominent role in the formation of the Venezuelan state. It really isn’t a surprise that a military now rules there. On the contrary, the formation of the Colombian state was done in great part by two strong political parties, liberals and conservatives, which have benefited the civilian elite.
The second difference is geographical: Venezuela is mainly a Caribbean state, whereas Colombia is greatly divided. However, Colombia’s focus has always been to the Caribbean in order to contact the U.S. commercially, and in this both countries have a lot in common. The third difference is that, although both countries have been ever dependent on the export of commodities, Colombia has never experienced the kind of income that Venezuela receives for its oil. Nevertheless, the latter’s oil production is dropping and the first’s is rising. Moreover, Venezuela’s oil experts are migrating to Colombia, aiding in the recent oil industry boom.
Finally, there is a great ideological divide between them, and this has enabled Chávez to create an external threat in order to rally its people and divert the attention from internal problems. However, this worked as well for Uribe: his popularity was at its highest when Chávez threatened with war. Now, the Santos administration has taken a pragmatic approach, appeasing ideological differences.
Many are worried that by calling Chávez “his new best friend”, Santos is being naive and letting his guard down on security. However, it has had very good results: tensions have subdued to a minimum, security cooperation (although some may call it incipient) is under way and, most importantly, Chávez now doesn’t have Colombia as a scapegoat for the great internal troubles he faces. Indeed, Venezuela’s crime has gone up, there’s a looming stagflation, investor confidence is gone and there is discontent about the state of freedom of speech. And now nothing seems to divert the attention off these issues.
Now that Chávez has been diagnosed with cancer, it has become crystal clear how personalistic his rule is and how little governance there is in Venezuela. In addition, concerns about succession have arisen. Should Chávez die or loose the coming presidential elections, the political scene in Venezuela could become dire and instability may damage the country further. In any case, Colombia must be prepared for the possible upcoming scenarios of Venezuelan politics. It may be one of the most difficult foreign policy challenges for Colombia up-to-date.