Colombo-Venezuelan Relations in a Post-FARC World

Venezuelans haven't noticed, but peace with FARC is setting off a once-in-a-generation realignment in Colombian politics, with deep implications for y'all.

The Colombian Government and the FARC recently agreed to consult Colombia’s Constitutional Court whether the peace agreements in Havana could be ratified by a referendum. The Court said yes and Colombians will now go to the polls to vote on accepting or rejecting the agreement.

For as long as anyone can remember, the FARC have been the focus of Colombian politics. That’s about to change.

We are looking at an unprecedented vote. Early indications are that, even though people aren’t happy with the way Santos has handled the whole thing, they’re likely to back the deal in the referendum. Colombian politics is going to fundamentally change and that could have deep implications for the Colombian government’s attitude towards Venezuela and Maduro.

For as long as anyone can remember, the FARC have been the focus of Colombian politics. They’ve been the main the ballot-box question in most elections, whether it’s supporting peace efforts or tougher military action. That’s about to change, because the FARC are going to fundamentally change. Maybe they’ll demobilize, maybe they’ll atomize into smaller gangs —probably both— but FARC as we know it will be no more.

To understand how it could all shake out, you need to have a sense of the main players.

Planet Uribe

Álvaro Uribe’s presidency was primarily focused on security, by increasing the military offensive against the FARC and promoting investment to spur the economy. Nonetheless, uribismo’s popularity has always been founded on Uribe’s personal appeal. Uribe has been a vocal critic of the peace process since the beginning, so it’s no surprise they’re campaigning for a NO vote. One relatively new ally to this effort has been Andrés Pastrana. Of course, the two are strident opponents of Maduro.

The Santos Governing Coalition (a.k.a. “La Unidad Nacional”)

In the 2010 presidential election Santos ran as Uribe’s successor, following his record as his Minister of Defense, though he wasn’t Uribe’s first choice. Unlike Uribe, nobody is actually Santista, so he formed a traditional government coalition with different parties, promising bureaucratic positions and various concessions on policy. There are many competing partisan, regional and economic interests within the coalition but it is, at least on the surface, united in promoting the peace process.

The VP Wildcard

Vice-President Germán Vargas Lleras is a key player, simply because he’s the frontrunner for the presidency in 2018. He served as Minister of the Interior early in Santos’ first term. Later, as Minister of Housing, focused on building 100,000 free homes for poor Colombians. He was elected VP in Santos’ second term and has been mostly focused on infrastructure development (roads, housing, aqueducts).

More importantly he has kept quiet about the peace process so he’s sidestepped the poisonous politics of the whole affair . His party has said that they will campaign for a YES vote but in an autonomous way, whatever the hell that means.

Independents and the Left

It’s hard to define this group as we’re lumping everyone else into one category. It includes independent voters (neither Uribistas nor Santistas), the centre-left Greens and traditional left-wing parties and movements. While they are not Santos supporters, they were essential to his victory in the 2014 runoff election, voting for him to stop the Uribista candidate and to keep the peace process going. These votes will once again be key source of YES votes. Attitudes to chavismo within this group mostly range from critical to neutral but a handful of prominent members have more favorable views, including Gustavo Petro and Piedad Córdoba.

Cool, but What Does it All Mean for Venezuela?

Venezuela is one of the accompanying countries of the peace process, along with Chile, but its relevance transcends that. We all know Chávez was in contact with the FARC and that Venezuela probably provided logistic support such as transporting the guerrilla’s leaders. This is why Santos is cautious in dealing with Maduro, which has cost him popularity in Colombia. Once the peace process comes to an end, success or failure, Venezuela’s influence over Santos is going to decrease.

Likewise, Santos cannot afford to antagonize the left by taking a harder line on Venezuela. He knows well that Piedad Córdoba’s grassroots support and experience within different pro-peace associations will be important in getting out the vote for a YES win. Sure, being soft on Venezuela may cost votes on the right, but right now he needs Piedad to pick up the phone.

You know what would be great for the Colombian economy? Venezuela opening up the border.

With FARC out of the picture, other problems are going to take center stage and cause a massive shift in the country’s politics. Perhaps foreign policy will be more prominent or there will be a new look at drug trafficking now that the FARC boogeyman is out of the picture, both of which could impact Venezuela.

Most likely the main issue will be the economy, now uribistas’ second favorite line of attack against Santos. The economy isn’t growing as fast as it once was and inflation has been relatively high by Colombian standards — 8.9% over the last 12 months, pass the smelling salts!

Santos has argued that peace will spur economic growth, but that won’t happen immediately. A tax reform is coming but the government is deliberately waiting until after the referendum to implement it.

You know what would be great for the Colombian economy? Venezuela opening up the border, loosening controls and starting to recover macro stability. Venezuela was only second to the US as a destination for Colombian exports in 2008, by 2015 it had fallen to sixth place.

Economic considerations could push the government to take a harder line against Maduro.

Here’s where the VP comes in. Germán Vargas Lleras wants to run for the top job in 2018, but what’s the point of him cutting ribbons on highways and bridges to Venezuela if you can’t export anything there? Vargas Lleras also knows his path to victory goes through  right-wing voters: he can’t compete if he doesn’t get at least a few uribistas who aren’t happy with Santos to vote for him. Again, an incentive to take a harder line against Maduro.

Right now this is speculation but what we can say confidently is that the internal forces that shape the Santos government’s attitudes to Venezuela will be re-aligned. How? We’ll just have to wait and see.