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By Socorro Ramirez
The border line between Colombia and Venezuela stretches 2,219 kilometers. There, the two states have built seven formal crossings and the area has five distinct areas: the Caribbean Peninsula, the Serrania del Perijá and Catatumbo Basin, the Andean area, the Piedemonte and the Llanos, the Orinoquia/Amazonia. The two countries share populations, strategic ecosystems, natural and energy resources, strong economic interactions and various security issues.
The Piedemonte and the shared plains
This is the border area where recent tensions are occurring, very close to the Arauca River, which serves as a limit.
The links of the populations are ancient, diverse and numerous. First, there are indigenous groups that do not recognize borders. There are towns in the Colombian Arauca founded by Venezuelans. On both sides grew the livestock herd around which the plain society turned. The exploitation of oil on the two banks of the Arauca River and gas in the foothills introduced changes that have manifested themselves at the social, economic, political and environmental levels, and add to other issues that would require concerted cross-border management. But recurring political tensions between the central governments of the two countries have made it difficult for strong local articulation to translate into the development of binational projects, whether energy or river axes, which has been talked about for centuries.
In this border area, the Colombian armed conflict has had numerous impacts on Venezuela. For example, since the mid-eighties of the twentieth century, the guerrilla group ELN, has had a rooted presence in Arauca. At that time they used as a logistic rear, especially the Apure, and generated attacks on Venezuelan military installations with the argument of defending Colombian migrant peasants, who were mistreated in Venezuela. Then, repercussions of the dispute between ELN, FARC and Colombian paramilitaries over the control of territories that took on strategic value to extort oil companies, municipal and departmental finances, as well as coca growers and smugglers of weapons, equipment, chemical precursors, etc.
And in that as in other border areas, after the Peace Agreement signed by the Colombian government and the FARC in late 2016, dissidents from this ex-guerrilla, the ELN and other armed groups have been installed on the Venezuelan side, with serious effects on border populations and both countries.
From binational articulation to border closures
In the 1990s, the intertwining of the two economies within the framework of the Andean Community of Nations (CAN) stimulated the establishment of a broad institutionality – Presidential Commission on Integration and Border Affairs (Copiaf), the Binational and Border Military Commission (Combifrom), the negotiating commission for delimitation in the Gulf ( Coneg), which helped communication between local and national authorities for concerted management of the complex neighborhood.
These mechanisms worked even after Venezuela’s withdrawal from the CAN ordered by Hugo Chavez. However, tensions between Chávez and the Colombian governments that coincided with their presidential mandates, the lack of a comprehensive presence of the two States in the border areas, the increase in Colombian irregular armed groups and the Venezuelan reaction of “hot persecution” exceeding the border line, generated problems and tensions in the border areas.
After Chavez’s death, Nicolás Maduro replaced him in 2013 in the leadership of the Bolivarian regime. Although he continued to support Venezuelan efforts in favor of peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the guerrillas -FARC and ELN, tensions increased at the same time.
On August 19, 2015, Maduro expelled more than 24,000 Colombians. Some had refugee status and blamed them for the Venezuelan crisis. He then ordered the closing of the formal border crossings between the two countries. Citizens’ pressure succeeded, in July 2016, that Maduro allowed some pedestrian border crossings and for freight transport, albeit in a restricted way. In March 2020, the Colombian government of Iván Duque ordered the “closure of the border” due to the pandemic.
More than five years of intermittent closure of formal border crossings has led the population and trade to move from country to country through deserts, mountains, rivers. Illegal armed groups have taken advantage of this situation to control these informal routes affecting what remains of binational trade and especially the population exodus that goes from Venezuela to Colombia, to which it subjected to extortion, job slavery and sexual exploitation.
Crisis, repercussions and tension
The increase in social rejection of the multidimensional crisis in Venezuela allowed the political opposition to win a large majority in the National Assembly in December 2015, but it was blocked by the official regime. Maduro was re-elected in 2018, in elections that, due to its irregularities, were not recognized by most countries in Europe and the Americas. In February 2019, Maduro broke diplomatic and consular relations as well as all communication with the Colombian government. Duque articulated himself with the opposition led by Juan Guaidó and assumed his strategy: cessation of usurpation, transitional government and free elections with Donald Trump’s support, and without assuming that Colombia’s interests vis-à-vis Venezuela are very different from those of the United States.
Most of the more than five million Venezuelans who have had to leave their country, pass or have tried to stay in Colombia where a pendular migration is also directed, which often go in search of remittances, income, goods and basic services. This exodus is also part of the return of many of those thousands of Colombians who migrated there seeking income in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as refuge in the 1990s in the face of the exacerbation of armed conflict, and now return with a binational family.
Beginning February 2021, Duque announced that on 26 of that month a Specialized Command against Drug Trafficking and Transnational Threats would go into operation in May against “high-value targets” and cited dissidents from exFARC, ELN, Clan del Golfo. He added that “in Venezuela many of them are protected because the Suns Cartel is next to Maduro, and is doing drug trafficking operations.”
Maduro replied: “We are ready for the armed defense of the national territory when needed, at the right time and in the right place.” “Colombia is a real drug state.” And Defense Minister Padrino López accused Colombia of becoming a “conspiracy center” against Venezuela.
Tensions are aggravated
The fourth week of March 2021, the border area of the piedemonte and the plain, was the scene of confrontation. In the early morning of Sunday 21 March, the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) deployed the military operation Lanceros de Apure against the dissident structure or front X of the former guerrilla FARC, in La Victoria, municipality of Páez, Apure state (Venezuela). On the night of the 23 March there were new clashes, as in the afternoons of 25 and 26 March in the hamlet El Ripial that stretches along the Arauca River.
Javier Tarazona, from Fundaredes, reported “a new armed confrontation that is increasing dead and displaced persons… We call on the international community, the United Nations, the International Red Cross to mediate; and that there be a guarantee of the human rights of these families fleeing the country.” Then, on Sunday 28 March, he showed that clashes persist in Apure, specifically in El Ripial and in the Santa Rosa los Arenales axis, concerning the lives of civilians displaced in the midst of armed conflict.
The Venezuelan regime has been arming itself. Maduro reiterated that this is a campaign through laboratories financed from the United States and Colombia “to mount false positives, to try to disfigure reality against Venezuela… create conditions to justify imperialist interventionism.” The Minister of Defense, the Foreign Minister and the ruling National Assembly hold the Colombian government accountable with the same accusations Maduro makes of exporting these irregular armed groups to Venezuela.
From Colombia, it is noted that the Maduro regime has allowed the presence and increased action on Venezuelan territory of the ELN and dissidents from the former guerrilla FARC and is now taking sides in disputes between these groups. The Minister of Defense and the Brazilian Aeronautics Company (Embraer) formalized the signing of the contract for the purchase of 25 tactical combat aircraft, destined for the Colombian Air Force.
Risks of even military rubbing are growing. From the border areas and cities in the interior of both countries, social, humanitarian and academic organizations have been articulating for more than a year now Puentes Ciudadanos Colombia Venezuela (Citizen Bridges Colombia Venezuela) to strengthen positive links that help prevent the aggravation of the situation and reconstruct the binational relationship. May the international community help to lower this dangerous tension.
(The author is expert in Colombia-Venezuela Relations, Prof at Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)