Relations with Venezuela hit rocky ground again on Tuesday after Colombia’s foreign ministry requested the release from prison of a leading Venezuelan opposition figure.
The Colombian stance toughened after former President Andres Pastrana (Conservative Party) was refused entry to visit opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez who has been imprisoned for allegedly inciting violence since last year.
Pastrana and former Chilean President Sebastian Piñera traveled to Venezuela on Sunday to attend a forum on democracy organised by the opposition party and to visit Lopez in prison.
However, when they tried to gain access to the prison, they were met by at least 40 troops with shields and riot gear from the Venezuelan National Guard and were denied entry.
Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was imprisoned almost a year ago over allegations that he incited violence during anti-government protests which resulted in the death of more than 40 people.
Pastrana’s prelude to trouble
Piñera and Pastrana said that they were in Venezuela to support the opposition and have called for the release of Lopez.
However, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accused the former leaders of taking part in a coup plot against him and supporting illegal groups in Venezuela.
Maduro said at the time of the event that they “may enter Venezuela, but it should be clear that they come to support a far-right group known to the Government.”
Diplomatic tensions ahead?
The accusation that Pastrana was in bed with illegal armed groups in Venezuela forced Colombia’s foreign ministry to take an anti-Maduro stance that it has refused to take ever since President Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010.
“We reject the accusations and epithets against ex-President Andres Pastrana Arango. The Colombian government hopes the former head of state receive the dignified treatment in line with his investiture as former head of state.”
Additionally, Bogota said that “we hope Leopoldo Lopez recovers his freedom as soon as possible.”
It didn’t take long for the Venezuelan government to respond to the Foreign Ministry’s press statement.
“We regret that the Colombian Foreign Ministry endorses positions against the Venezuelan democracy and the constitutional government of President Nicolas Maduro. This position constitutes a dangerous setback in bilateral relations,” said Caracas in a statement.
Two neighbors’ rocky relationship
The bilateral ties between Venezuela and Colombia have only been somewhat stable since Santos took office in 2010.
At the end of the administrations of former president Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cut diplomatic ties with Colombia over allegations that he was supporting Colombia’s oldest rebel group, the FARC, which maintained a presence in Venezuela and other neighboring countries.
The breaking of ties caused a major collapse in trade between the two countries and put major economic pressure on the border regions that depend on bilateral trade.
When Santos took over the presidency in 2010 he immediately restored diplomatic ties with Venezuela, going as far as calling Chavez his “new best friend.”
The resumption of ties recovered the economic losses and allowed Venezuela to help Santos establish peace talks with the FARC with whom formal peace talks began in November 2012.
However, the recovered diplomatic relations also made Santos vulnerable to criticism by the hardliner Uribe who turned against Santos and continued his fierce opposition to Venezuela’s left-wing government.
Meanwhile, Bogota was unable to take an explicit position as the economic, political and human rights situation in Venezuela worsened after Maduro took office in 2013.
Additionally, the Santos administration had to swallow ongoing accusations of informal Colombian interference in Venezuelan internal matters and human rights abuses allegedly committed against Colombian citizens.
This period of walking on diplomatic eggshells ended on Tuesday when Bogota openly sided with Venezuela’s conservative opposition.