“Cerco diplomático” against Maduro: Colombia’s unsuccessful strategy
Por: Maria Isabel Puerta Riera y Omar OCampo
In this text, we explore how the economic, social and political deterioration of Venezuela has affected its neighbor, Colombia, and why the Duque administration has pursued a policy of regime change. Although there is no doubt that the Venezuelan crisis is having a profound impact on Colombia, there are other domestic considerations to consider. We argue that the fall of Nicolás Maduro will help Duque earn the necessary political capital to consolidate Centro Democratico’s hegemony in Colombia and marginalize its left opposition. This consolidation could allow Duque to persuade independent parties to support his national agenda, which include securitization and modifications to the 2016 Havana Peace Accords. However, a review of the Venezuelan situation suggests that regime change will not be easy, and it will also not yield the immediate positive results expected by el uribismo.
Multilateralism has been Duque’s instrument of choice in order to implement the so-called cerco diplomático and put pressure on Maduro’s regime (El Nacional, 2019; Márquez, 2018). The Organization of American States (OAS) and the ad hoc Lima Group have emerged as two international spaces used to attempt, to restore Venezuelan democracy and solve its humanitarian crisis. It is largely assumed by the Centro Democrático that the immediate removal of Maduro would unleash a chain of events that would not only be to the benefit of the region, but to Colombia as well. First, it will initiate Venezuela’s economic recovery, thus recuperating trade relations and reversing the flows of migration. This would alleviate the perceived pressures that Venezuelan refugees have on the labor market and on the educational and health systems of the country. Second, a friendly and an anti-Chavist government in Caracas will undoubtedly improve bilateral relations. As a result, both countries will work together to bring increased security on the border, disrupt and dismantle existing contraband and drug trafficking networks, and crackdown on illegal armed groups that are considered as a national security threat like the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Lastly, as mentioned above, Maduro’s fall will earn Duque enormous political capital and weaken his opposition, consisting of a coalition of left-wing parties, which he could then paint as morally bankrupt political actors. However, until now these efforts to isolate and force regime change have been unsuccessful and risks fracturing the international coalition.
Fissures are already present. Even though the Lima Group have rejected calls for a United States-led military intervention, the Centro Democrático have sent mixed signals internally and abroad about this very option. On one hand, former ex-president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the party’s leader, has rejected a military solution to the Venezuelan crisis, instead preferring to encourage a Venezuelan military uprising or coup d’état (Semana, 2019). On the other hand, Colombia’s ambassador to Washington, Francisco Santos, has not discarded the possibility of a military solution (CNN Español, 2018). What explains the inconsistency of the CD’s messaging?
Aside from Duque’s lack of leadership, we have come up with two explanations. The first is the national interest of Colombia vis-à-vis the ELN and other illegal armed groups. With the demobilization of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) in 2016, the ELN emerged as the public enemy number one. They have undoubtedly expanded on both sides of the border and filled the power vacuum left behind by the FARC (Valencia, 2019). While it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the dynamics that exist on the border, the ELN has crossed into Venezuela in order to take refuge and regroup, recruit new personnel, plan military operations, and engage in numerous illicit activities. There is the perception in Colombia that Maduro is providing a haven for the ELN and that he considers them to be the first line of defense in case of a US invasion emanating from Colombia. While it is difficult to know the exact nature of the relationship between the Maduro regime and the ELN – it most probably oscillates between tolerance, cooperation, and conflict – there is evidence that, in some municipalities, the ELN has taken over key state functions as the distribution of CLAP boxes (Sepulveda, 2018) and engage in illegal mining activities in Bolívar state (InSight Crime, 2018).
The second explanation is that Duque’s bellicose posture towards Maduro is popular with the uribista base. After one year in office, with no significant policy achievements and a poor performing economy, Duque’s approval ratings are abysmal. However, when he undertook a leading role against Maduro, especially following Juan Guaido’s self-proclamation as Interim President of Venezuela, his poll numbers started to improve (Murphey & Vargas, 2019). This is why we hypothesize that Maduro’s fall will not only be a great political victory for Duque, but it will consolidate his party’s power and marginalize any left-wing resistance to his policy agenda.
However, Maduro has proven thus far to be resilient. International sanctions have not changed the state’s behavior nor has the recognition of a parallel government led to significant military defections. As a result, a debate on foreign military intervention has reopened. The stakes are high for Duque. A military confrontation between Colombia and Venezuela could deteriorate the humanitarian situation, intensify migrant outflows, and be to the benefit of criminal organizations that operate along the border, who would take advantage of the chaos. For this reason, progressive and left voices in the region, including Colombian parties such as el Polo Democrático Alternativo, the FARC and the Alianza Verde, have rejected the interventionist agenda of the United States and support a negotiated solution to the crisis (Polo Democratico Alternativo, 2019; FARC, 2019; Alianza Verde, 2019).
At the time of writing, the efforts to find a peaceful solution are underway. Negotiations between Maduro and Guaidó, brokered by the Norwegian government, have been met with skepticism, given the Maduro government’s lack of good faith in previous rounds of talks. The impatience shown by the Donald Trump administration is reflected in the scaling of sanctions. This has been widely viewed as counterproductive since it not only exacerbates the humanitarian crisis, but introduces an additional obstacle to reaching an agreement (Shifter, 2019).
The crisis has become a challenge for Colombia. Even with the swift removal of Maduro, there is no evidence to suggest that the situation on the ground will immediately improve. Venezuela will have to undergo a profound economic reconstruction. There is little doubt that the international community needs to stand firm in support of the current negotiations, even if it is to the detriment of Duque, Centro Democrático, and the Trump administration. The failure to broker a negotiated deal between Maduro and the opposition means further deterioration of the humanitarian and economic crisis, the absence of a peaceful democratic transition and the increased possibility of confrontation and/or war. In short, the negotiations are critical. If the talks collapses, Colombia and the region will continue to face difficulty in absorbing all the challenges that result from the expansion of Venezuela’s crisis.
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