The Venezuela-Colombia border crisis heats up

The Venezuela-Colombia border crisis heats up

As Venezuela confronts significant economic problems ahead of elections in December, President Maduro has tried to divert attention by creating a conflict with neighboring Colombia. As a result, economic and political tensions are flaring on both sides of the border.

Historically, there has been a great deal of population exchange between Colombia and Venezuela, with about 5.6 million Colombians currently living and working in Venezuela. Many of them emigrated for trade opportunities, but others left to escape the half-decade old armed conflict between the Colombian government and communist guerrillas.

The UN estimates that some 15,000 Colombians have fled Venezuela over the last week, after Venezuelan President Maduro ordered the mass deportation of several hundreds of Colombians who have been accused of being linked to trafficking networks. Colombia has been forced to establish refugee camps in the border state of Cauca to receive and host the thousands of exiled citizens crossing into Colombia.


In the background: shortages and accusations

Over the last months, President Maduro has rapidly lost domestic support amidst spurring inflation and food shortages. As December’s parliamentary elections approach, Maduro is trying to divert public attention away from the domestic crisis towards external issues, namely by fueling tensions with its neighbors, Guyana and Colombia.

The main problem is Venezuela’s economic meltdown, with chronic food shortages and nearly 120% inflation fueling outbreaks of street violence. This weekend, following days of unrest and turmoil, with mobs looting supermarkets in search for food in several cities, the government declared the expropriation of Nestle’s warehouses and depots, as well as those of PepsiCo, Cargill, and others.

What is more, on August 22nd Maduro decreed a state of exception and martial law in the border state of Tachira for 60 days, following a gunfight between Venzuelan forces and alleged Colombian traffickers that left several officers injured.

Incidents such as this have become more frequent as inflation and product scarcity have soared, and subsidized Venezuelan petrol has been smuggled out to Colombia. On September 2nd, Venezuela’s National Assembly approved extending the state of exception to another four bordering states.

In connection, one of Maduro’s attempts to boost support has been to tout his role of acting ‘In defense of the homeland’, which has become a renewed theme in his public speeches. The idea is to evoke patriotic emotions and divert the attention from the domestic emergency.

At the same time, the Venezuelan government has overtly accused Colombia of ‘waging an economic war’ by means of ‘exporting paramilitaries and traffickers’ through the border with the intent to incite chaos and help the opposition to topple Maduro’s government.

Problematically, Venezuela has singled out accusations against the Colombian Self Defense Forces, a far-right paramilitary group that has been historically engaged with drug trafficking and highly violent crimes, even though the majority of their units defected and disarmed under an OAS demobilization program in the early 2000’s.

All accusations have been categorically rejected and condemned by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has summoned the OAS and UNASUR regional organizations to mediate with Venezuela in order to help defuse the incipient conflict.

Spillover damage

A fear for Colombia is that the Venezuelan crisis could result in deep collateral damage to its western neighbor. Indeed, the most immediate effects will be on the economy, considering Colombia is Venezuela’s top trade partner, with exports amounting to over 2 billion USD in 2014.

But security is an even greater concern. A central aspect to Santos’ Presidency in Colombia is his electoral promise to put an end to the five-decade-long war with FARC and ELN communist guerrillas. Peace talks between the Colombian Government and FARC have taken place in La Havana with Venezuela playing a key role as trusted interlocutor with FARC. A withdrawal of Venezuela from the process could certainly entail the collapse of peace talks.

In anticipation of this, President Santos’ image has been in steady decline with approval ratings of just 29%. Indeed, nearly 69% of citizens say they have lost hope in his ability to strike a peace deal with FARC. For the sake of stability and political support, President Santos needs to defuse the cross-border crisis before they bring serious economic and political damage to Colombia.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

About Author

Martin De Angelis

Martin F. De Angelis is a political and security risks analyst with a focus on Latin America. He has lived and worked in the US, UK and Cuba. He is a former US DoS Fulbright Scholar and UK FCO Chevening Fellow. Martin has been broadcast by BBC, AlJazeera, SkyNewsHD, Euronews and other media. He holds a Licentiate degree in Political Science from the University of Buenos Aires, an MA in Strategy and Geopolitics from the Army War College of Argentina and an MSc in International Relations Theory by the London School of Economics [LSE] with Merits.