Before travelling to Quito on September 21, the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, made it clear that he had low expectations for his forthcoming meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolás Maduro.
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That night, Santos’ pessimism was proved justified, although this wasn’t obvious as he posed for photos alongside Maduro, Rafael Correa and the Uruguayan President, Tabaré Vasquez. The smiling photo shoot took place despite Maduro’s decision to keep Venezuelan border crossings with Colombia closed for an indefinite period.
Images that have circulated around the globe in recent weeks have shown that, of all those affected by the closure of Venezuela’s borders, Colombians have suffered the most.
The photographs show surreal scenes: men carrying beds, televisions and refrigerators on their backs; women crossing the border river with their children in their arms; people crying; desperation evident everywhere. Those depicted in the photos are Colombian citizens, expelled from Venezuela amid allegations of serious human rights violations and the separation of families.
The border conflict had been going so badly for Colombia that one of its former presidents, Ernesto Samper, now President of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), tacitly spoke out in favor of the decisions taken by Maduro.
“A year ago we warned of the danger of Colombian paramilitaries entering Venezuela. Today, it’s confirmed as a reality”, he commented via Twitter during the most critical period of the expulsions ordered by the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela. Many fellow Colombians rejected his expressions via the same social network.
Quito was not a neutral venue for the meeting, despite Rafael Correa’s assurances to the contrary. The crowd gathered in the Plaza Grande to welcome the illustrious visitors showed a clear preference for Maduro’s inherited Chavism.
The Ecuadorians and Venezuelans in the crowd showed fervent support for the political line of 21st century socialism and its current leaders. The onlookers acted respectfully at the scene of the complicated diplomatic event and their slogans were peaceful.
When he arrived at the Plaza Grande, Maduro seemed to feel at home. He stopped at the Cathedral to visit the tomb of the Venezuelan Marshal Antonio José de Sucre, before making his entrance in front of Carondelet Palace. Even before the meeting began, his face wore the expression of the victor. When Santos arrived nearly an hour later, his entry was less pompous, as was his greeting on the balcony of the Palace.
According to the Colombian press, at least one of the meeting’s five hours was devoted to a private discussion between the two key protagonists, without Correa or Vazquez. They have told all, but shortly after their final appearance, the four leaders agreed to speak of successful results, using triumphant phrases. The outcome of the meeting can be summarized in seven points:
1. Allow the immediate return of their ambassadors.
2. Conduct a background investigation in the border area.
3. Gather ministerial teams on Wednesday September 23 in Caracas to discuss sensitive issues in the affected region.
4. Work on a progressive normalization of the border.
5. Achieve the coexistence of economic, political and social models between the two nations.
6. To appeal to the spirit of brotherhood between the two countries.
7. Continue to work with the support of Ecuador and Uruguay.
In short, the borders remain closed. Almost nothing was said of the mistreatment reported by Colombians who have been deported. Just a fledgling investigation. In Colombia there had even been hopes of a possible public apology from Maduro.
In Colombia, the media reaction was almost resigned. The magazine Semana wrote that “probably in Quito there were no winners or losers”.
And although the presidents who acted as mediators, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Uruguay’s Tabare Vasquez, declared the event a success, the meeting did not end with the reopening of the border. In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis continues to affect nearly 17,000 people, forced to leave Venezuela and currently seeking refuge in shelters across the Colombian border.
The Colombian newspaper El Espectador spoke with Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin about the presidential meeting. She stated that the Venezuelan leader had insisted that there have been no human rights violations during the expulsion of Colombians; whereas Santos maintains that rights have been violated. “In that regard, there was no consensus”, she admitted.
According to Holguín, the meeting’s most positive outcome was the initiation of an investigation by Uruguay and Ecuador, which will look into events including raids by Venezuelan guards into Colombia and the violation of Colombian airspace.
As night began to fall, a group of Ecuadorians protested the presence of President Maduro in the country. Meanwhile, the four presidents gave their press conference at Carondelet Palace. The pouring rain didn’t deter the demonstrators, as they shouted slogans against a President they consider to be disastrous for the region.