- Daniel Brown
- BBC Mundo correspondent in Colombia
August 12, 2022
With less than a week in power, the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, shook a relationship with Venezuela that had been frozen for 6 years.
Petro promised during the campaign to reestablish relations with the government of Nicolás Maduro, interrupted by differences with the governments of Juan Manuel Santos and, above all, Iván Duque.
Thursday, Petro and Maduro announced ambassadors for the other country: The Colombian chose Armando Benedetti, a veteran congressman without ideological attachments, and the Venezuelan Félix Plasencia, former foreign minister of the moderate wing of Chavismo.
Previously, Petro had appointed Álvaro Leyva, a veteran politician expert in peace negotiations, as foreign minister. The minister has already met with high-ranking Venezuelan officials and is now in Cuba exploring the resumption of negotiations with the National Liberation Army, a guerrilla group.
And Maduro, as happened with the FARC 6 years ago, can play a central role in that process.
But in addition to what refers to peace, both Colombia and Venezuela are interested in reopening the immense border they share, whose closure has triggered illegality and prevented the flow of trade and the prosperity of thousands of businessmen.
On the eve of the announcement of the guidelines for the reestablishment of relations, BBC Mundo spoke with Ricardo Lozano Forero, the last ambassador of Colombia in Venezuela (between 2015 and 2018).
An expert in diplomacy and trade relations, Lozano anticipates a long and complex process that, however, could be a “great opportunity” for both countries.
What do you think of the appointment of Armando Benedetti as Ambassador in Caracas?
The ambassador in Venezuela has to be a great manager to move this big agenda.
You have to have a keen political nose.
And it must work hand in hand and understand both the Colombian business sector and the public sector.
It is not just a political job. Whoever has those conditions is the one.
Why is it necessary to open the border?
Because the closure has potentiated an environment of illegality. Six years ago we had three armed groups in the area, and now there are 16.
There are 45 municipalities on the border, and 80% have a direct, daily relationship with Venezuela. There are business ties, family, people who come and go to study for the day.
When you close something so vital, the space is taken over by illegality, because border life does not stop even with the border closed.
According to the Colombian-Venezuelan Chamber, there are more than US$1,500 million of legal articles that are passing illegally. Those goods pass yes or yes.
So to open up is to regularize that, to allow the normal flow of life in a place where it never ceased to exist.
Who are the biggest beneficiaries?
Well, everyone. The people who live there, the merchants and the economies of both countries.
Colombia can be a great support for Venezuela in rebuilding its economy.
It’s just that you look: throughout history, border cities have been so integrated that they really seem to be one. The people who live there have one foot on each side.
Why is it so difficult to suddenly reopen?
Because this is like if you are going to build a building: if you do it in a hurry, you fail. You need method and structure.
There are no relationships here for 6 years. Generals and ministers haven’t seen each other for 6 years.
Opening such a hot border generates many legal, logistical and public order inconveniences. The reaction of the armed groups can be violent.
If one opens the 15 consulates, for example, is it going to be done without people? No, first you have to appoint officials, transfer them, train them and, above all, have a pre-established plan to know what they are going to do. Searching and finding those profiles is not easy.
We have to define what we already have in place, because this cannot be a clean slate either: for example, there are 200 agreements already signed on security, infrastructure, trade, culture. How do we reactivate those agreements?
Because it is also not a job that is done from the capitals, but from the regions affected by the border and where there are migrants from both countries, which is basically everywhere.
If a makeup is done, the result is partial, with chaos, with illegality. This is slow.
Don’t you think that all this work can be affected by the coming to power of someone who is not related to Maduro or Petro?
Of course. It is that part of the challenge is that this is sustainable. It cannot be that the relationship changes depending on who is in power in Colombia or in Venezuela.
This relationship has always been difficult, with ups and downs. But that should not mean an absence of lines of direction, which go beyond political interest.
That is to say: if you intend to resolve something as complex as the Colombian-Venezuelan border with an ideological criterion, you fail.
What do you think are the urgent points so that the process does not fail?
First we must define a common agenda under the premises of where we are and where we are going. Build trust.
The second is to align the public and private sectors of both countries, which is not easy.
It is also necessary to resolve pending accounts, not only the debts that the Venezuelan State has with some Colombian companies, but also legal issues of persons deprived of liberty.
A next point is migration: in Colombia there are 2.3 million Venezuelans, but a third of them are not regularized. Where are they? What are they doing?
Every month 10,000 Venezuelans go to Colombia and 80% stay. We must be very clear about what these people expect and what international cooperation is doing, which is very large and not always completely efficient.
Another thing: where is the money going to come from, because much is needed to renovate bridges, software systems, surveillance.
In the north of Santander two years ago there were 3,500 Venezuelan students, and now there are 50,000. Is Colombia in a position to receive even more? Must see.
And another important topic. Venezuela has some sanctions with the United States: how does that affect Colombia, and those who are going to be related to them?
The plan has to be shown to the countries that sanctioned the Chavista government.
Why is it so difficult to restore diplomatic relations?
Because we do not have clear rules on how it is going to be done and what the criteria of the relationship will be.
We have to see if mobile consulates can be created. Old bridges need maintenance. Think about how payments are going to be made for investments in a country with sanctions and financial restrictions.
This begins with a negotiation table to seek diagnoses and solutions.
Do you think that the ideological affinity between governments can be a problem or an opportunity?
It is an opportunity, of course. But joint objectives must prevail, the construction of solid foundations that go beyond these four years.
The ultimate goal must be that the relationship is not mediated by the ideology of whoever is governing.
But there are those who believe that to negotiate, Venezuela should meet certain democratic criteria.
Of course, but it is that the democracy of Venezuela cannot be solved by Colombia. And there must be a relationship, whether we like the type of government that exists or not.
The opening and economic liberalization of Venezuela, is it an opportunity for Colombia?
Of course. The economy, with all its distortions and humanitarian effects, is slowly stabilizing.
Be careful, it is not that Colombia invades Venezuela commercially taking advantage of its crisis.
This has to be a complementary issue. Colombia can help rebuild the Venezuelan industrial apparatus, export agricultural products and then goods such as textiles.
And Venezuela can help us with the negotiation with armed groups, especially the ELN and the FARC dissidents. The plan has to be based on reciprocity.
But, in any case, it is essential that none of the governments feel that attributes or sovereignty are being taken away.
If the Venezuelans feel threatened, they come back and close the market.
Yesterday Juan González (advisor for Latin America to the president of the United States, Joe Biden) said that in the case of the treaties between the United States, Canada and Mexico, it has been learned that the best thing for everyone is that they all do well.
What Colombia should be most interested in is that Venezuela is doing well, regardless of whether or not Maduro is in power. Because if things go wrong for them, it affects us.
Does reestablishing relations imply recognizing Maduro as president?
I think, without knowing what he is thinking, of course, that Petro is playing that tacitly. The foreign ministers and defense ministers have already met. Perhaps meeting him with Maduro is too risky, but that is not the most urgent thing.
It is evident that Maduro has control of sovereignty, of territory, of the economy. That is not a symbolic question, it is real.
Recognizing Maduro should be an overdue discussion. He is in control of everything.
Did Duque’s diplomatic siege fail?
Totally. He had laudable goals, but removing Maduro from power could not and cannot be. It is an illusion.
And the world has changed. The Cold War is over. González (Biden’s advisor) said that 40 years ago the United States would have done the impossible not to let Petro win. And see now. This change. Pragmatism took over international relations.
If even the United States is talking to Venezuelans, one cannot keep thinking about the internal politics of each country. You have to have an open mind and pragmatism.
You worked closely with el chavismo. What do you think is the formula for deal with the government of Venezuela?
Trust must be generated and a complementary relationship must be built.
They play by different rules than you. If you have soccer rules, they have basketball rules.
So you have to make an effort to understand their rules, their priorities, what moves them and what scares them.
That does not mean legitimizing authoritarianism and giving up more than necessary. It is, as in any relationship, to build from the understanding of the other.
Because if you don’t understand them, you hit a wall.
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