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Tensions escalate in South America. Will Colombia and Venezuela go to war?

Story published on

 September 16, 2019

It has been the number one topic debated in the media over the past weeks, here, in Colombia. How bad will the current tensions between Colombia and Venezuela get? Why is Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela talking about machineries of war?


I arrived in Colombia at a very interesting and complicated time. No sooner had I managed to find my way through the streets of La Candelaria, that, as I was visiting the police museum in the Capital, one of the officers there told us the breaking news of the day: some FARC rebels decided to ignore the peace deal and rearm in the jungle. Their call to arms was one asking for a new battle against a state which they claim didn’t respect the 2016 peace deal with the guerillas.

Immediately, the Colombian president, Ivan Duque, made a public display of force and determination, announcing he has deployed the army to the jungles and, at the same time, acusing Venezuela of harboring the Colombian guerillas. 

Image Credit: Ivan Duque/Twitter

Going back to civil war not an option

So far, Colombians aren’t really worried that the civil war with FARC will reignite. At least, not the way it used to be. 

After all, most of the guerillas surrendered their weapons and returned to civilian life and are so far abiding by the peace deal. 

As flawed and contested as it might be, there is nothing better. Though there are former guerilla members very critical and disappointed by their life after the peace deal, both sides are still too aware of what the decades-long war meant for them. It’s still to soon to have already forgotten.

This is why the bigger problem now is with the dictator next door.

About 7.000 FARC fighters handed down their weapons after the peace deal. The number of dissidents is believed to be at 2.300 (source: BBC)

The bigger problem

The fact that Venezuela is harboring both FARC and ELN fighters has long been the biggest thorn in the two countries’ relations. 

And now, as Nicolas Maduro struggles more and more to hold on to the reins of power in Venezuela, the Colombian guerillas and paramilitaries are turning into a weapon for Caracas. Colombia sees a dangerous game here, one where Maduro is trying to destabilize the neighboring country. 

On the other hand, the Colombian government is among the 50 or so which back opposition leader Juan Guaido’s claims to the reigns of the country. This leads to both countries accusing eachother of trying to destabilize or overthrow the other’s government. 

Flexing of muscles

The main worry now is that, as Venezuela keeps giving the Colombian guerillas a place where to regroup, near the border, it will internationalize the conflict with groups such as FARC and further complicate the situation in this part of the world, one that has seen its share of violence, but no inter-state conflict since the 1930s. 

“The presence of the guerrillas complicate any calculation”, Venezuelan journalist Francisco Toro warns. “Venezuela wouldn’t have to launch an invasion to get its forces into Colombia — its guerrilla allies are already there. Those same guerrillas multiply the potential for mistakes, miscalculations and accidents that could easily set off an escalation none of the players can bring under control”.

Responding to Bogota’s threats of zero tolerance against harboring narcoterorists, Nicolas Maduro put the border region under state of alert, claiming there is a threat of aggresion coming from Colombia. He ordered extended military exercises in the border region until the 28th of September, with 150.000 soldiers expecting to take part. 

“The moment has come to defend our sovereignty and national peace by deploying our defense resources in full force”, Maduro said on Twitter.   

Image Credit: Nicolas Maduro/Twitter

“We call on all Colombians for calm, knowing that we possess a sufficiently equipped and capable public force.”, Colombian Vice-President Marta Lucia Ramirez replied to Maduro’s announcements, adding: ”We must not react to this threat, because it would be foolish to think it could be real”.

At this point, Maduro’s words and actions don’t look like more than a show of fake muscles. This kind of rhetoric of the enemy next door helps the Venezuelan leader invigorate his nationalist discourse and might distract his critics, if only for a brief moment, from the situation in Venezuela and the contestations to his regime. On the other hand, the Colombian policians, who are preparing for elections, have also jumped the belicose bandwaggon quite quickly.

The exodus

The numbers of dispair

4 million Venezuelans left their country

1.3 million are in Colombia

5.000 Venezuelans cross the border into Colombia every day now, according to El Colombiano

This intensified spat comes as Colombia is the place that over 1.3 million Venezuelans have started calling home as the situation in their country became too desperate to bear. Moreover, there are estimates saying that every day, 5.000 more cross the border into Colombia, according to El Colombiano newspaper, some of them heading South, others wanting to stay here.

Venezuela’s tragic situation is one of the reasons why people here hope that the tensions will be reigned in. Nicolas Maduro’s army doesn’t have the training, the capabilities, the money and the power to fight Colombia. Russia and Cuba, who are very much present in Venezuela, are unlikely to get into this. “It would be suicidal for Maduro to get into a wor with Colombia”, Venezuelan writer Moises Naim said, according to El Tiempo.

On the other side of the border, Colombia still seems to be able to count on the US, which has already offered guarantees to Bogota, in case of a conflict with Venezuela. Colombia already invoked a regional treaty from 1947 and called for a multinational meeting that will take place in New York, to discuss the crisis with Venezuela.

After very charged weeks, one thing is clear: there is more than meets the eye behind these tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. They hide a chain of problems and risks, a series of national an international interests that, so far, keep the situation in a delicate balance. As this balance struggles to hold, the Venezuelan drama continues to unfold and its migration crisis keeps adding pressure to the neighboring countries, most especially to Colombia. 



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