The killing of three Venezuelan armed forces soldiers at the border town of Tachira by Colombian smugglers has sparked a new crisis between the two South American nations. However, this series of unfortunate events reveals more about the internal political workings of both nations as opposed to their dealings with one another.
Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro swiftly ordered the closing of the border for about 72 hours and deployed 1,500 troops to crack down on illegal smuggling after the attack on his troops. One civilian was hurt during the attack as well, and the smugglers remain at large and have not been identified. Maduro also declared a state of emergency in six border towns and revoked civic freedoms, like the right of assembly and protest, from border areas.
Maduro’s crack down focused on Colombians living illegally in Venezuelan territory, mostly in the border town of Tachira. So far there are around 1,200 deportees, most of whom have fled to Cucuta on the Colombian side of the border. Deportees have overrun Cucuta’s shelters with assistance and supplies desperately needed for many. Maduro’s forces have gone house to house in Tachira looking for illegal migrants and smugglers.
This situation has struck a nerve on both sides of the border. Maduro has used Colombian smugglers as a scapegoat to divert attention away from the deep problems facing his regime. Venezuela has shortages of many basic goods and a sharp rise in criminal activity (Caracas has the second highest murder rate of any major city in the world). The low price of oil has exacerbated the crisis as Maduro depends on oil royalties to sustain his regime’s social and economic policies.
Despite the harshness of Maduro’s actions, which have included marking and tearing down housing belonging to deported Colombians, there is very little evidence that suggests that Maduro has done anything outside the realm of international law. Reports of abuse at the border by Colombians have not been verified by reliable, independent sources. Nevertheless, the Colombian and Venezuelan media have had a field day with the situation. Granted, Maduro’s crackdown is harsh and tactless, and the optics of the situation are terrible, borderline xenophobic. However, Maduro is well within his right to deport those living illegally in Venezuelan territory.
Sensationalist and unfounded claims on both sides of the border have fuelled nationalistic feelings to the benefit of very narrow political interests. In the worst display of fear mongering yet, Nicolas Maduro and the Venezuelan funded news network Telesur have emphasised the ‘infiltration of Colombian paramilitaries’ in Venezuelan society. On the other hand, the ever popular Alvaro Uribe has compared the deportation of Colombians who had been living across the border illegally with Hitler’s actions against European Jews. Note that Uribe’s campaign against Maduro has the logo of his emerging far-right party, Centro Democrático.
In a shameless display of political opportunism, ex-president Uribe travelled to Cucuta. With a megaphone in one hand and the regional Centro Democrático candidate at his side, he offered to buy groceries for the displaced Colombians and fight off Venezuela. Maduro, also jumping at the opportunity, has blamed the large Colombian diaspora for the high levels of insecurity in his country and Colombian smugglers for the shortages of basic goods besieging everyday Venezuelans. He has expanded the closing of the border to 60 days.
Both Maduro and Uribe have an eye on upcoming elections that will very likely determine their political future in their respective countries. Uribe’s Centro Democrático party burst in to the Colombian political scene with a bang, giving current president Juan Manuel Santos a run for his money in the last presidential elections. Centro Democrático has become the strongest opposition force to president Santos’ mandate in recent years. Uribe wants to build on this initial success and the upcoming departmental (provincial), municipal, and local elections to be held in October will prove pivotal for him.
Venezuela will hold parliamentary elections at the end of this year. Maduro has endured mass protests and general discontent from the population in the last couple of years. More worrisome for Maduro are several hard-core Chavistas that have broken ranks with his party. The Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide) movement pose the only credible challenge to Maduro’s grip on power. Both leaders seek to benefit from a rally around the flag effect.
This spat at the border is unlikely to escalate. President Santos has brilliantly defused the situation, and adamantly refused to blame Maduro. He has also resisted the temptation to use overly nationalistic and inflammatory rhetoric. He has proposed diplomatic channels to resolve the conflict above all. Despite making the most reasonable decision, he will most likely lose favour with the Colombian population. Uribe and the media have made an excellent job at portraying Santos as weak on matters of national sovereignty and state security. His dovish stance will contribute to his already weak public image.
The peace process negotiation to end the 50-year-old FARC insurgency, currently taking place in Havana, will also suffer as Venezuela has served as mediator and facilitator. The peace process is already widely unpopular in Colombia and Maduro’s antics will not help.
Finally, the most affected by these events are citizens from both countries living close to the border. Shelters in Cucuta are overflowing and many deportees have left everything they own in Venezuela. Venezuelans have come to rely on contraband goods to satisfy some of their most basic needs like toilet paper and flour. A crackdown on contraband will further exacerbate shortages in the Bolivarian nation.
Idiocy is the only word I can find to describe the reactions within each country to the situation at the border. Colombia and Venezuela are falling prey to narrow interests and the only ones that will benefit from this situation are Mr. Uribe and President Maduro.
Tweet to @cmedina1990Follow @iAffairsCanada
Christian Medina Ramirez is a Master of Arts candidate at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Ottawa. He was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and did his undergraduate degree in Politics and Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Waterloo, Canada.
Featured Photo by Globovision.