Colombia’s new President Ivan Duque has begun his tenure facing a number of significant challenges. He must manage the 2016 peace deal achieved by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, which he believes lets some former Farc guerillas off too lightly. He must battle drug production, which has been rising since the end of the armed conflict. And he must manage the desperate humanitarian and political crisis that is seeping across the border from neighbouring Venezuela.
Thanks to Santos’s peace diplomacy, which helped bring to an end five decades of fighting, Colombia now has the opportunity to open up and expand its foreign policy approach. Duque could now develop a more amicable and positive vision that enables him to establish agreements on social, political, economic and humanitarian issues with countries around the world.
Consequently, Duque’s foreign policy approach is being closely monitored – particularly how it tallies with that of the Trump administration in the US. Closer ties between the US and Colombia were evident during Duque’s intervention at the United Nations General Assembly and his encounter with President Donald Trump, where both drug trafficking and the Venezuelan crisis were discussed.
President Duque’s intervention insisted on the need to combat drug trafficking as a global threat, the need to combat the evident increase in illicit crop plantations, his commitment to fighting corruption, and the need to work with the international community in dealing with the most difficult migratory and humanitarian problem in the region: the Venezuelan crisis.
Colombia’s alignment with American foreign policy has increased tensions between Bogota, Washington and Caracas, leading to speculation about a possible military intervention into Venezuela to topple the regime of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president. Meanwhile, Trump has expressed publicly his support for Colombia as an ally in the war on drugs and offered support for Colombia in the event of a military clash with Venezuela. The US administration also announced sanctions against Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife, and Diosdado Cabello, Maduro’s top political ally.
For his part, Duque has insisted that Colombia will not support a military intervention into Venezuela, and has instead called on the international community to support sanctions that bring an end to Maduro’s regime.
The Venezuela question
Indeed, Duque opposes a closed border approach, and has insisted on opening up diplomatic channels and resources to deal with the crisis in Venezuela, including the International Criminal Court to denounce the violations of the Maduro regime and initiate a peaceful democratic transition. Back in 2017, for example, Duque, together with other senators, initiated a complaint against Maduro at the ICC for the crimes of torture, political discrimination, murder and kidnapping.
But Maduro has contested the US sanctions imposed on his wife, and challenged Duque to a televised debate (to be broadcast both in Colombia and Venezuela) to discuss the range of issues affecting bilateral relations – an invitation rejected by Duque, who deemed it a mere electoral stunt. Maduro has also deployed Venezuelan troops along the Colombian border, justifying these troop movements as a strategy for combating illegal drug networks located along the border, an act interpreted by both Trump and Duque as intimidation.
Although international pressure is a useful instrument for weakening Maduro’s administration, the ongoing and escalating verbal clashes between the three presidents is a dangerous strategy.
US military interventions are viewed with great suspicion in Latin America, particularly after those in Granada and Panama became enforced occupations. A US/Colombian intervention in Venezuela would likely require troops to stay for the long haul, in a country where most physical and social structures have been destroyed, drug traffickers benefit from widespread lawlessness and nation-building would be a lengthy process. The presence of US troops would also play into the hands of Maduro, who already rails to his supporters about US plots against him.
However, the US has often used indirect means to influence events in South America, using allied forces and governments in the region to intervene on its behalf. Trump, for example, has met with various officers of the Venezuelan military since 2017, to discuss the possibility of a coup against president Maduro, although none have ended in concrete material support.
Colombia, therefore, plays a vital role in the current situation – both as Venezuela’s closest neighbour and the most important regional US ally – and the Duque administration has rejected signing the Lima declaration which would have ruled out any intervention leading to regime change in Venezuela.
But an internal coup in Venezuela – with the support of the US and Colombia – would be beset with difficulties. It would require an overarching political and military strategy, as well as regional tactical coordination, with agreements based on varying interests and loyalties. The Venezuelan military, meanwhile, has been purged and politicised through a constant rotation of army commanders since 2002. Irrespective of what Colombia and the US want, putting plans into place in a country as chaotic as Venezuela will be no easy feat.
Louis Monroy-Santander, Teaching Fellow in Defence, Development and Diplomacy, Durham University