International Terrain Gets More Complicated for Venezuela

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David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Last week’s meeting between Miranda governor Henrique Capriles and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos began a sequence of events that has revealed the fragility in what has been heretofore a source of strength for the Maduro government–international relations.

The private Santos-Capriles meeting at Casa de Nariño in Bogotá lasted less than an hour and was low key. There were no public declarations or joint statements after the meeting, and only one photo was released showing a formally attired Capriles shaking hands with a casually dressed Santos.

However the reaction by the Venezuelan Government was strident. Almost every high official of the government used strong language to refer to the meeting. Elias Jaua, Venezuelan Foreign Minister, declared that  “To receive a person that does not recognize the Venezuelan institutions and that openly called for violence on April 15th is a very bad sign and reveals what we have repeated many times: there is a conspiracy against Venezuela from Bogotá.

In response to the meeting President Nicolas Maduro recalled Roy Chaderton, Venezuelan envoy to the Colombian peace negotiations in Cuba. “I have doubts whether this peace process should continue…During the electoral campaign I received envoys from President Santos and, authorized by him, I negotiated with the Colombian guerrilla in order to achieve peace in Colombia…Now he repays us with this? With betrayal?”

Colombia has attempted to reassure the Venezuelan Government. Its Foreign Minister Maria Ángela Hoguín declared that her Government would treat the issue directly with Venezuela and avoid the harmful “microphone diplomacy" of the past.  The Colombian Vice-President Angelino Garzón declared: “We recognize the legitimately elected government of Venezuela headed by the President Nicolas Maduro.” But added that President Santos “has autonomy to receive any person he may consider appropriate.”

While reactions from the Maduro government were as over-the-top as one might expect from what we saw in April and May, it should not surprise that its reaction to Santos meeting with the leading figure of the opposition who does not recognize the government’s legitimacy would be quite negative.

Indeed at first it was a little hard to understand why Santos would agree to the meeting. One of the most important, perhaps defining policy shifts of Santos’ presidency has been the warming of relations with Venezuela. This turnabout helped the Colombian economy and put Colombia on more solid footing in new regional multilateral initiatives like the Union of Southern Nations (UNASUR) and the Council of Latin American and Caribbean Heads of State (CELAC). It is also a policy that has sunk political costs for Santos (for example the animosity of his mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe) which would normally work against change.

But within days it became clear that this might be just one element of a larger shift in Colombia’s international positioning that creates greater complexity for Maduro. On Saturday June 1st, Santos revealed that Colombia would be seeking a collaborative relationship with the most powerful military alliance in the world, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Maduro, on a State visit to Nicaragua, reacted quickly to the announcement: “There are people that now want to bring invading armies of the world to Latin America, this contradicts international doctrine and the legal framework on which union is based.”

On Monday Maduro said “don’t think that what happened in the past couple of days was simply a misunderstanding as President Juan Manuel Santos has called it…what is happening now with the announcement that they are going to NATO is a negative turn towards an agenda of regional destabilization and division, an attack against the Bolivarian revolution and adhesion to hegemonic imperial attacks.”

Here again, overstatements aside, there is reason for Maduro to be concerned. Venezuela’s international position is a strength for his government–indeed one of his responses to the domestic troubles of his first month in office was to take an international trip to receive the warm support of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. The relationship with Colombia was an important sign that Venezuela was a reasonable country that could collaborate and have a healthy relationship with a non-left government. Furthermore, Venezuela was a key player in the creation of UNASUR and CELAC and their strength is vital for Venezuela’s international support. UNASUR was present at the Venezuelan elections and quickly showed support for Maduro. Colombia’s movement towards NATO will likely sap strength from regional integration and could even become a wedge issue in these new multilateral bodies.

There were other signs of a weaking international position for Maduro. On Monday, June 4, Venezuelan representative to the Organization of American States (OAS) Roy Chaderton was booed and interrupted when he addressed a meeting of civil society representatives. Chaderton berated the Venezuelan members of the Youth Network of the Americas who had atended and were requesting the implementation of the OAS Democratic Charter against the Venezuelan government. The youth delegation stood up and walked out as Chaderton called them “fascists.”