Where are Colombia-Venezuela Relations Heading?

Behind the smiles in the photo gallery with the Colombian ambassador and the Chavista barons lies the need to handle the ELN and a more pragmatic approach toward Colombian exports


While several countries turn their backs on Nicolás Maduro’s regime and others decide to mend things with him without making too much noise, Gustavo Petro’s leftist government has already begun rebuilding the relationships with Venezuela—and chavismo—after a month of taking charge of Colombia. Diplomatic and commercial relations had been broken since 2019, when then President Iván Duque recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate Venezuelan president.

Petro never hid that he would revoke recognizing Guaidó and on his second day as president he stated that he wanted to re-establish all relationships with Venezuela, including diplomatic and military. In the most notorious approach yet, his ambassador in Caracas (the first since 2018), Armando Benedetti, went to Miraflores Palace to shake hands with a smiling Maduro. Later on, Benedetti and the chavista government made sure that the reception looked warm and festive, by spreading photographs with the regime’s highest-ranking leaders: Delcy and Jorge Rodríguez, Diosdado Cabello, and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López.

This is the story chavista propaganda wanted us to see: a government gaining legitimacy and a new international ally. Yet, if that’s how it probably is, from Colombia’s point of view the first steps taken by the Petro administration have other angles and dimensions.

While in Caracas they only spoke of Benedetti, in Bogotá they barely registered the presence of the ambassador appointed by Maduro, Félix Plasencia. On the other hand, while Petro’s government has insisted on reopening the border, Maduro has been less effusive on the matter. Finally, while one of the main debates on national security in Colombia centers around an eventual peace process with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and the role Venezuela would play there. Maduro just announced his government would be a guarantor in the peace process with ELN.

So, beyond the grandiose statements and the controversial photographs, where is Gustavo Petro taking relations between Colombia and Venezuela? And up to what point is Maduro trying to one-sidedly control that change?

Benedetti’s Real Message

Armando Benedetti comes from that “old world” Gustavo Petro claimed he was fighting. The ambassador’s chameleonic history always put him close to power. From the Partido Liberal, one of the most important parties in the Colombian establishment, he jumped to center-right party Partido de la Unión por la Gente, at one point led by Álvaro Uribe Vélez, and in 2020 he jumped to progressive party Colombia Humana, becoming one of Petro’s close aides.

That the new Colombian president chose Benedetti for the Caracas embassy instead of a Marxist is, in itself, a message on what the end goal is. “It’s a person who can guarantee a conservative management in Caracas,” says César Niño, an international law expert and professor at Universidad de La Salle, in Colombia. “A former guerrilla member can mean trouble in the domestic agenda. A traditional politician in that position will generate more trust from businessmen,” Niño says. Actually, putting aside his pics hugging chavista leaders, Benedetti’s main message for Colombians is not political bonding. In his first tweet after being appointed, Benedetti promised to reach 10,000 million dollars in annual commercial exchange with Venezuela.

So, for Petro’s government, the money factor is an important one. It’s logical: trade could reach 1,200 million dollars by the end of the year if border transactions resume, according to estimates by business owners in both countries. However, it’s far from being the main priority for Maduro’s administration. According to Bloomberg, when Colombian businessmen and politicians gathered in Cucuta for a “border agreement,” neither Félix Plasencia nor Freddy Bernal, the governor of Táchira, attended the event, although they were both invited.

Even when both governments announced the full reopening of the border by the final days of September 2022, the Colombian government sounded more enthusiastic than the regime, which kept the emphasis on resuming flights between Caracas, Bogotá and Valencia. Until that day, Maduro was coming up with obstacles for reopening the border. In an interview with Boomberg Línea, Benedetti said that he asked Maduro to open the border in three to four months, but that the chavista leader refused, citing concerns with drug trafficking and safety. A paradoxical answer even for Benedetti, who believes that opening the border is the way to take away power from drug traffickers and the illegal movement through pathways. In regards to whether Colombia was more interested in reopening the border, Benedetti said: “Yes, of course. That’s why I’m here, to gain trust, we’re not hostile.” 

The real reason for being so cautious about reopening the border, according to news sources, is that Maduro’s in talks with Venezuelan food and pharmaceutical manufacturers to see how to proceed without a negative impact on them. With a small market and in the midst of certain flexibilities from the chavista regime, these businesspeople are afraid that Colombian products, which are cheaper, will invade local trade and clip the wings to get out of the hole they’re in.

In a broadcast, Maduro commented about the reopening of the border with Colombia: “We’re preparing to have a solid plan.” 

One Problem Solved for Maduro

The most important gesture—and the only one—from Petro towards the Venezuelan opposition, who had been embraced by Iván Duque’s government since 2018, was to ensure he would respect the right to asylum of politicians and soldiers who found refuge in Colombia. But Benedetti turned on the alarms by tweeting: “Judicial cooperation is already activated between Venezuela and Colombia.” The reach of said agreement is still unknown.

More than a slap in the face to chavismo, having a heavyweight leader of the Venezuelan opposition like Julio Borges in a Venezuelan prison could be a problem in the midst of his attempts to regain international legitimacy, says lawyer and expert in international law and senior consultant for Crisis Group, Mariano de Alba: “The issue is bigger for some chavista factions. Maduro has other priorities, mostly financial and getting back their international legitimacy.” This senior consultant for Crisis Group suggests that Petro’s calculations might change. “There are many persecuted Venezuelans in Colombia who haven’t formally obtained asylum but rather have taken the temporary protection statute, so it’s a risk.” 

In fact, as soon as they knew of Petro’s victory, tens of Venezuelan members of the opposition in Colombia started to plan their exit from the country, according to a report by Bloomberg. Some of them spoke of their fear of being stalked, spied on, or even kidnapped.

The Guardian of What?

Petro won the presidency with the promise of achieving “total peace” in Colombia, which means the demobilization of the guerrilla group Ejército de Liberación Nacional. Looking to put that into motion, four days after being sworn in as president, he sent a delegation to Havana to talk about the possibility of continuing dialogue on the island, where the ELN negotiators remain. 

For the time being, Petro hasn’t publicly proposed Maduro’s government as a support in a future negotiating process with the ELN in Cuba, although Benedetti said that it could be one of the guarantor countries in the procedure. For chavismo, on the other hand, it’s a thorny issue on which their standing is still unknown. While independent investigations and numerous testimonies claim as truth the permanent presence of the ELN in Venezuela, the regime has chosen to remain—and makes sure everyone remains—quiet about the affair.  “ELN is not only a risk for those who live in the rural areas of our country, but they’re also benefiting from resources that could be used for the Venezuelan economy, helping new opportunities and financing services for the people,” says De Alba. The risks for Colombia and their population, he says, are very similar. Achieving “total peace” approaching Maduro’s government is “a possibility that Petro’s government has to consider,” César Niño says.

When asked whether dissidents of Colombian irregular groups in Venezuela would be front and center in the negotiations with the Colombian government, Benedetti answered:

“I would believe that they wouldn’t, because it was clear that, once they went along with the peace process, if they committed a crime again, they would be left out of the peace process, and that’s what happened.”

In Niño’s opinion, if the ELN demobilization includes forces in Venezuelan soil, Colombia will need the support of the Venezuelan government to verify they are sticking to the agreement. The incentives for the elenos, says the international law expert, depend on the guarantees they might get from these negotiations, such as political participation and judicial benefits, just like it happened with the FARC peace process.

But, what interest might Maduro’s government have in helping Colombia and removing the ELN from Venezuela, if it hasn’t done it so far? “Maduro’s government could have certain incentives to give real support to the negotiation process put forward by the Colombian government,” De Alba says. “It’s no secret that parts of the Armed Forces don’t agree with these groups being in Venezuela.”

“If Maduro decides to not collaborate or the relationship deteriorates, Petro’s government has other ways to move forward without Maduro’s help,” the senior consultant for Crisis Group adds. “That option is also risky for Maduro, who at least at this moment is looking to reduce his international isolation. The truth is that it will need coordination from both governments to go ahead, and if there’s no political will, it’s very possible that at least some factions will continue to exist in Venezuela with all the inconvenience and risks their existence brings.”

Both experts agree that since ELN is a vertical organization but without one single leadership, it might take on a criminal structure without an ideology that could jeopardize both Venezuela and Colombia. In any case, it will be a long process.

Different Military Priorities

In this context, the fact that Padrino López announced he got orders to move forward with re-establishing military ties means another clash of diverging plans. The military agenda of Petro’s administration revolves around a change in doctrine, including the appointment of Iván Velásquez as the Defense Minister. Velásquez is a lawyer who stands out because of his long career in the fight against corruption in Colombia and Guatemala. For Niño, “there may be a new logic in regards to protecting human rights.” Of course, a high-level military dialogue is needed to handle irregular migration and criminal activity by groups threatening the sovereignty of both countries.

In Niño’s opinion, just because there’s a fluid military relationship, it doesn’t mean that there’s complicity between the political regimes. In any case, re-establishing military relations seems unlikely for the time being, Mariano del Alba says. “There’s a lot of distrust between both armed forces as a result of the last few years and it will take some time before those relations are fluid once again,” he says. “Communications would have to resume between high-ranking officials and gradually between defense ministers from both countries. But in the short term, communications are more likely to happen through the foreign ministries.”