Recently, an act of collective delusion, or collective wishful thinking, rather, has been taking place in Colombia. Ever since Juan Manuel Santos was elected president, media pundits and politicians have been talking about the hope of improving relations with Venezuela.
Headlines here and there announce a series of “positive messages” from the government of Hugo Chavez to Colombia, emphasizing that the Venezuelan autocrat promises “sincerity and respect” toward Mr. Santos’ administration. Mr. Chavez even wished the president-elect “success in the exercise of his new responsibility”, and agreed to “shake his hand” if it came to that.
The most optimistic have interpreted these words as good omens for relations between the two countries. The appointment of the competent Maria Angela Holguin to the Ministry of Foreign Relations has also lifted the hopes of those who want to see the quarrels with Venezuela as something of the past. Ms. Holguin, who was ambassador to Venezuela under President Uribe, is seen as someone who could play an important role in fixing the diplomatic channel with that country. Perhaps, with some help, Mr. Chavez is willing to leave all the past grudges behind and to start anew with Colombia.
Of course, all that is humbug. Every time I read another article insinuating that there could be reconciliation between the two countries, I laugh on the inside. Why on earth would anyone think that President Chavez and President Santos could have a frictionless relationship? Not so long ago, Mr. Chavez called Mr. Santos a “threat to the region”, warning that his election “could lead to war” with Colombia. The Venezuelan leader has also pointed out that “there will not be trade [with Colombia] if Santos is president”. But the disgust is mutual. It suffices to say that in 2004, Mr. Santos wrote an article for Revista Diners, in which he referred to the Venezuelan president as a man “with social resentments” and maintained that Venezuelan “democracy has been kidnapped by Hugo Chavez.” Mr. Santos finished his article by stating that “the Bolivarian deliria of Chavez represent a serious danger for Colombia.”
So why, all of a sudden, are there people saying that the two countries can mend their relationship? Has Mr. Chavez out of the blue become the statesman he has never been, one who can respect the leaders and the policies of other nations regardless of their ideology? Has President-elect Santos forgotten that the Venezuelan autocrat is a man who has helped Colombian terrorists and who would gladly do anything in his power to further their communist cause? Needless to say, the answer to both questions is “no.” Nothing has changed, the two men still cannot stand each other, and the relationship between Colombia and Venezuela will continue to be as bad as it has been in the past year.
To believe otherwise is simply naïve. President Chavez will continue to further his Bolivarian revolution at home and abroad. This goes directly against the plans that President-elect Santos has for Colombia, a country that he intends to keep on the same track that President Uribe placed it on. Furthermore, there is the question of trade between the two nations. Nobody in Bogota will consider that relations have improved until there is a normalization of commerce, which means that President Chavez would have to lift his blockade against Colombian imports entering Venezuela. But Mr. Chavez has no reason to alter those trade restrictions, which he imposed as a response to the military agreement between Colombia and the United States.
So, those who believe that things can improve now that President Uribe is leaving power are wrong. And the reason is a very simple one. Their argument rests on the assumption that the problem in the bilateral relationship was somehow Mr. Uribe’s doing. Without him, President Santos can activate a restart button à la Obama and the tensions along the border will diminish. Needless to say, this is completely off base, because the problem in the relationship is not to be found on the Colombian side of the border, but in Caracas. Hugo Chavez is the problem. His expansionary plans for the Bolivarian revolution mean that, for as long as he remains president of Venezuela, there will be trouble between the two nations, for Colombia will always be an obstacle to his strategy.
For our own good, let us not delude ourselves. The respectful (“kind” is too strong a word) gestures that have been coming out of Caracas are nothing but a prelude for what we are already used to. The accusations and the threats will follow again soon – Mr. Chavez knows no other language. As I am sure that the president-elect is aware of this, I trust him to keep the country alert and ready for when the problems with our neighbor strike again.