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The Colombia-Venezuela conflict: Much ado about nothing?

Hugo Loiseau

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Photo: U.S. Department of State
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shakes hands with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe at the Plaza de Armas in Casa de Nariño in Bogotá, Colombia, on June 9, 2010.

The greatest threat to peace and stability in Latin America still and always stems from a lack of democracy and the disregard for its principles and institutions, as evidenced by the conflict that pitted Colombia and Venezuela against each other in the summer of 2009. Could an inter-state war in South America have broken out in the absence of democratic and diplomatic mechanisms? To this day, this near-war situation highlights the many tensions present in the Andean region.

It is worth noting that the principal security problem of the region resides in the transnational nature of two major issues: drug production and trafficking and the presence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Both issues spill over into adjacent countries either because of the absence of a state authority in border regions or thanks to the barely disguised benevolence of some countries regarding the presence of FARC members on their territory.

Added to this context is a deeply rooted historical malaise regarding the delimitation of borders or the administration of disputed territories. In fact, Colombia and Venezuela are in a dispute not only over the administration of the Los Monjes islands, but also most significantly over their shared land border consisting of more than 2,000 kilometres of rugged terrain. These disputes fuel the claims, accusations and the movement of troops on both sides. Latent tension along the border and a mistrust of the real intentions of “the other” are creating a serious roadblock to reconciliatory efforts.

Moreover, despite the presence of a regional framework favourable to encouraging their implementation, confidence measures that prioritize co-operation and dialogue are either seldom applied or of little effect on some countries in the region. In fact, the Organization of American States (OAS) has implemented a series of norms and treaties to build confidence, foster dialogue and encourage transparency in the area of regional security. These include measures regarding the publication of Defence White Papers that contain military doctrines and reports on the state of military forces, co-ordination between various armed forces, frequent meetings between the region’s defence ministers and transparency in the purchase of arms and military equipment.

The principal setback of these measures is that they are deployed within an inter-American framework in which the United States plays a dominant role and acts according to strategic interests. The Summit of the Americas held in April 2009 provides a telling example of the situation. On the one hand, the U.S. displayed an openness and an interest in the region and promised to establish the bases for new relations on an equal footing —highly anticipated at the time— with Latin America. On the other hand, Washington had, in the meantime, entered into negotiations behind closed doors with Bogotá regarding the lease and use of seven military bases on Colombian soil. This bilateral agreement, which is entirely legal according to international law, entitled Supplemental Agreement for Co-operation and Technical Assistance in Defense and Security, is intended to improve co-operation between both countries with respect to the war on terrorism and narco-trafficking in the region. However, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and his administration failed to consult the Colombian parliament regarding this controversial issue. Doing so would have enhanced the legitimacy of the decision and would have conveyed a message of reassurance concerning Colombia’s intentions. Consequently, the July 2009 announcement by Bogotá that it would lease the Colombian military bases to the United States Armed Forces was cause for concern in Latin American countries and was perceived by Caracas as a true casus belli.

It was at this point that the verbal exaggerations, warlike fervour and authoritarian rants of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez nearly caused the outbreak of an armed conflict. During his regular Sunday talk show, Aló Presidente (which all Venezuelan television and radio stations are required to broadcast live and in its entirety), Chávez blatantly declared: "If the U.S. were to attack Venezuela militarily, it would be the start of a 100-year war that would extend across the entire continent [...].” The situation worsened over the remainder of the summer of 2009, leading to the recall of ambassadors, the freezing of bilateral trade relations, the mobilization of troops along the border and the symbolic acts of rupture of foreign relations on Venezuela’s part. These events occurred thanks to the concentration of military, legislative and judicial powers in the hands of President Chávez. Fortunately, the crisis aptly demonstrated Brazil’s stabilizing role in the region, as well as the effectiveness of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a relatively new organization looking to gain credibility. South American diplomacy, and, to a lesser extent, international and inter-American diplomacy, proved successful in this situation. Nonetheless, although the situation was momentarily stabilized, it remained unresolved.

The election of Juan Manuel Santos to the Colombian presidency in June 2010 was key to the renewal of serious dialogue between the two countries. Subsequently, there was an act of reconciliation at the summit in early August 2010. Most importantly, however, the most ironic occurrence during the crisis was the decision of the Colombian courts. In fact, the Constitutional Court invalidated the agreement concerning the lease of military bases in late August 2010, since the procedure for the ratification of international agreements —requiring the participation of the legislative body— had not been respected. The agreement is, therefore, unconstitutional in its form. It remains in abeyance, while the executive branch decides whether the question should be put to members of the Colombian parliament for their approval. In addition, the Constitutional Court must still rule on the merits of the agreement, since many of its articles are being contested by human rights groups in the country.

In the summer of 2009, all ingredients were in place for a war to break out between Colombia and Venezuela. Nonetheless, in spite of the threats and transnational problems, an armed conflict did not materialize thanks to diplomacy and to democratic and legal mechanisms. Furthermore, the conflict-free election of Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia nearly a year after the crisis began and his administration’s respect for the rule of law did much to appease tensions. However, nothing can guarantee that the disputes between the two countries will not see a resurgence over the next few years. The uncertainty over the location of the military bases, the continued militarization of the civil war in Colombia and the political instrumentalization of Venezuela’s problems will not disappear overnight. Furthermore, border tensions remain high, the authoritarian rants of President Chávez are becoming more frequent, and the FARC organization has certainly been weakened, but is not yet open to peace. Finally, U.S. policy in the region seems inconsistent and even of little consequence, which is undoubtedly weakening Andean regional security efforts.

Hugo Loiseau is adjunct professor at the École de politique appliquée at the Université de Sherbrooke. He holds a doctorate from Université Laval.


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