Photo: retrieved

Iván Duque has been president of Colombia for under two months, time spent trying to determine his government’s position on key issues, with mixed results due to the internal strains of his governing coalition. These strains about Venezuela have recently come to light, because of recent comments from two key appointees: the ambassadors to the U.S. and to the OAS.

Duque’s approach relies on a different method to those of Santos government’s short-term approaches to Venezuela. Early on, Santos focused on decreasing tensions with Chávez and trying to get limited economic benefits, such as restarting commercial trade and finalizing dollar payments to Colombian exporters who had sold goods to Venezuelan companies.

These strains about Venezuela have recently come to light, because of recent comments from two key appointees: the ambassadors to the U.S. and to the OAS.

Then, the approach was to toe the line with Maduro during the peace talks. Later, Santos dialed up the anti-Maduro rhetoric as the peace process came to an end and Colombian public opinion demanded a tougher approach. Despite these significant changes within his coalition, Santos and his Foreign Affairs minister kept the issue under control.

While Duque signalled that he would take a tougher line on Venezuela during the campaign, recent comments by ambassadors Francisco Santos (USA) and Alejandro Ordóñez (OAS) have put the spotlight on what “tougher”  means and how far it will go.

Colombian politics has dedicated a lot of speech time to Venezuela. But, this is only tangentially related to the actual, real country that borders it. In Colombian political discourse, “Venezuela” has become a proxy for different domestic issues, such as the peace process or left-right ideology. This is why it’s so common for the Colombian right not to talk about what to do with Venezuela but rather about how not to become Venezuela.

The clashing forces

Former Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón (Juan Manuel’s cousin, because Colombia) was appointed to be Colombia’s ambassador in Washington. Last week, he stated that a key issue in U.S.-Colombia relations would be dealing with the Venezuelan government. Later he emphasized, with respect to military action, that “all options should be on the table”  and yes, he was talking fairly narrowly about direct intervention.

The issue at hand is that Pacho Santos is well known for his peculiar, volatile personality and his aggressive discourse. Years ago, he famously suggested that student protesters could be dealt with by “using volts [of electricity] on the kids and arresting them.

After the statements in Washington, President Duque was widely quoted contradicting his own ambassador, denying any interest in military action and insisting on multilateral diplomacy. This isn’t the first time a Duque appointee freelances policy. On issues such as tax policy, these confusions may be trial balloons to test public opinion, but they become a notable issue regarding foreign relations and national defense, where the presidency has more direct authority.

The differences between the ambassadors and President Duque are more about personality than policy.

Meanwhile, the new ambassador to the OAS, Alejandro Ordóñez, was touring Cúcuta joined by OAS Secretary General Almagro, who also insisted on the “all options” approach to Venezuela. On Sunday, Ordóñez echoed these statements: “As President Duque said, it’s necessary to highlight the drama of the humanitarian crisis, which must be addressed from the regional perspective and within a multilateral perspective. We must insist on this, in order to face the Venezuelan political crisis with determination”, assured the now diplomat in Washington. Ordóñez is a staunch religious and social conservative and his views reflect the tensions inside the government coalition.

The differences between the ambassadors and President Duque are more about personality than policy, as there are some interesting parallelisms in terms of people and power coalitions with the U.S. administration.

While the mainstream approach in Bogotá and Washington regarding Venezuela is to be cautious and skeptical of direct action, there are some volatile protagonists pushing for a direct intervention, which is why there’s growing concern in Colombia.

Just this past weekend, the front cover of Colombia’s Semana, one of its main political magazines, is about the risk of conflict in Venezuela. Newspaper El Espectador featured articles and op-eds strongly pushing back against military action. Furthermore, its editorial evaluating Duque’s performance cites the contradictions between the ambassador and the president as a key weakness of Duque’s government.

Making predictions is terrible business, but I still believe there are significant sectors of the government who will keep pushing for a more cautious approach.

But, that doesn’t mean that talking out loud about an intervention won’t change things.

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