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Colombia Revives Relations With U.S. Foe Venezuela

BOGOTÁ, Colombia—Venezuela and Colombia moved to re-establish relations that were severed in 2019 when the U.S. and its closest allies moved to isolate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime.

The resumption of relations between the South American neighbors marks a turn for Colombia, the U.S.’s longtime top partner in Latin America. Under newly elected President Gustavo Petro, Colombia has pledged to steer away from the Washington-led pressure campaign against Mr. Maduro’s authoritarian government. The resumption of diplomacy means that all large countries in the Americas, save for the U.S., Canada and Brazil, have resumed diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

Venezuela and Colombia traded ambassadors on Sunday, with Armando Benedetti, a former Colombian senator who had led Mr. Petro’s presidential campaign, arriving in Caracas to represent Bogotá. Mr. Maduro’s representative, Felix Plasencia, a former foreign minister, arrived in the Colombian capital.

“We’re here to rescue the fine tradition of contact between two sister nations, which is fundamental for Latin America,” Mr. Plasencia, a former Venezuelan envoy to China, told reporters here.

Mr. Benedetti said on Twitter that his mission was to “repair the damages” caused by a rupture in diplomacy he said should never have happened.

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Colombian President Gustavo Petro, speaking on Saturday, has committed to improve relations with neighbor Venezuela.

Photo: luis eduardo noriega a/Shutterstock

Mr. Petro underscored his desire for good relations with a warm letter to Mr. Maduro in which he wrote about a friendship between the two countries “that happily exists.” He signed the letter, “loyal and good friend.”

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. recognized a Venezuelan congressman and opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s legitimate president in the aftermath of 2018 presidential elections in Caracas that Washington and other countries said had been fraudulent. Former President Donald Trump’s government also leveled a series of economic sanctions that restricted the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA, from selling crude. The measure largely cut off the Venezuelan economy from the world financial system.

Dozens of countries followed Washington’s lead in recognizing Mr. Guaidó and trying to isolate Mr. Maduro, the most consequential of them being Colombia, which shares a 1,400-mile border with Venezuela and has had close cultural and commercial ties. Mr. Petro’s predecessor, President Iván Duque, called Mr. Maduro a dictator and said Colombia would recognize Venezuela’s government when elections were held and a democratically elected leader took power.

The resumption of relations between the two countries raises uncertainties for Mr. Guaidó, who has lost visibility since Mr. Trump left office. He remains in Caracas and calls himself the country’s legitimate president.

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Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó called on the new Colombian administration to criticize the Maduro government.

Photo: miguel gutierrez/Shutterstock

Mr. Guaidó criticized the Petro government on Monday for not speaking out against human-rights violations in Venezuela and in favor of the nearly 7 million Venezuelans who fled the country because of a punishing economic crisis.

“Call him a dictator,” Mr. Guaidó said in comments directed toward Mr. Petro’s envoy, “calling Maduro anything else is re-victimizing the whole country.”

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that democratic governments should “uphold the democratic norms that have been broken by dictatorial regimes like Maduro’s.”

A former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, said that while it is necessary for Colombia to engage Venezuela on bilateral issues, the resumption of relations could serve as a way for Colombia to discuss the democratic overhauls that Washington seeks in Caracas.

Mr. Petro, a former leftist guerrilla who once had cozy relations with Venezuelan leaders, particularly late President Hugo Chávez, has made re-establishing diplomacy a priority since taking office this month.

The Petro administration says it is breaking from the previous government to boost security cooperation in the lawless border region, where armed gangs have expanded. Colombia says reopening the border—formally closed for seven years—could generate $1.2 billion in bilateral trade by the end of 2023, compared with the nearly $6 billion in trade a decade ago.

Mr. Petro’s aides, however, say they are still working on ways around U.S. sanctions that prohibit doing business with Maduro-controlled entities. One company affected by sanctions is Monómeros Colombo Venezolanos SA, a Venezuelan state-owned fertilizer plant in Colombia that came into Mr. Guaidó’s control in 2019 but has been mired in financial troubles.

The Petro administration says it wants to return control to Mr. Maduro to restore operations at the plant, which produces more than a third of Colombia’s fertilizer supply. “The issue for us is food sovereignty,” Colombia Trade Minister Germán Umaña said, explaining the urgency in engaging with the Venezuelan government.

Mr. Umaña said that his administration is committed to human rights but added “the internal affairs of other countries are handled by those countries, not by us.”

Mr. Petro’s pledge to normalize relations has also raised concerns among Venezuelan opposition politicians who had fled their country for Colombia in recent years fearing persecution.

Venezuela regime figures, most prominently Diosdado Cabello, a senior official in the country’s ruling Socialist Party, have called on Colombia to turn some of those exiles over to Venezuela. The Maduro government holds nearly 240 political prisoners without due process and torture is common against the regime’s adversaries, according to the Venezuelan rights group Penal Forum.

Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com and Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

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