The Venezuela-Colombia crisis exposes the region

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The diplomatic crisis triggered by Nicolás Maduro, president of Venezuela, involving Colombia, revealed the true situation of Latin America’s regional institutions: traditional ineffectiveness and unviability of the kind created under the influence of Hugo Chávez, who governed Venezuela from August 2000 until his official death in March 2013.

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The facts are known: on August 19, Nicolás Maduro decided to expel Colombian people from Venezuela and ordered the closure of some border entry points. He claimed that Colombian paramilitary forces had attacked Venezuelan soldiers during an anti smuggling operation.
Nine days later, the two countries recalled their ambassadors for consultations. Tensions rose on September 8 when Venezuela sent 3,000 troops to Paraguachón, closing another border point. A total of 1,608 Colombians were deported and 19,686 returned to Colombia, afraid of being deported too. The testimonies gathered on that border, even by Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS, told of abuses and the destruction of homes, the creation of a real humanitarian crisis. The homes to be demolished were marked with a “D”, in Nazi style.

Colombia, however, did not obtain the 18 votes necessary for the Organization of American States (OAS) to call a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of its 34 member States. Ecuador voted against it. The governments of Brazil and Argentina, Chavism’s traditional allies, abstained, along with the small Caribbean islands that benefited from oil subsidized by the Venezuelan Government.

With the OAS out of the picture, the logical next step would be for the two governments to request the mediation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in this border crisis. This organization, constituted by twelve member States, was established in 2008 and its founding treaty was signed in 2011. Its creation was strongly promoted by Chavism to foster regional integration. Its current Secretary General, Ernesto Samper, however, has given rise to serious doubts about its neutral character. Former president of Colombia, accused in 1994 of having received money from the Cali cartel for his presidential campaign, he is a politician whose visa was revoked by the United States. His critics believe this explains his proximity to governments that oppose the United States.

Whatever the case may be, UNASUR’s reputation as a completely biased organization has been consolidated during his administration, which began in August 2014. This was already discussed in 2008, for example, during the crisis of Pando in Bolivia. Or during the impeachment of Fernando Lugo and his removal from office in Paraguay in 2012. Samper was harshly criticized across the Colombian political spectrum during the border crisis. To the extent that the president of Uruguay, Tabaré Vásquez, arrived in Quito as UNASUR’s representative, as president pro tempore.

In fact, the political blocs promoted by Cuba and Venezuela, to counter the influence of the United States in the region, managed to paralyze the regional organizations. José Miguel Insulza, passing through Quito, explained the ineffectiveness of the OAS at an off the record meeting. He, who was its Secretary General, had to obey his mandators. And he said there was an absolute, almost mathematical division… Neither to one side nor to the other: the OAS was at a standstill. That confession portrayed the reality of the historical institutions for Latin American integration which, contrary to what happens in Europe, are not supranational, but depend on the will of their member States. The absolute ineffectiveness of the traditional regional institutions can be better understood if we add to this the authoritarianism that, under the ideology of a 21st Century socialism was encouraged by Venezuela.

Chavism, whose diplomacy was based on its financial capacity, derived from the oil bonanza, could even influence Brazil to make decisions that conflicted with its democratic creed. Brazilian diplomacy, playing in the global big leagues, opted not to oppose Chávez. It was ideologically close to the government of the Workers’ Party (PT); it had money, hence it favored economic expansion and politically Itamaraty always considered it a phenomenon with an expiration date. Put in a different way, Chavism and its allies’ populist rhetoric was destined to last as long as the petrodollars continued to pour down. Today Venezuela has not only lost that influence: it is the country with the most economic difficulties in the region and the worst equipped to deal with the crisis caused by the fall of commodity prices.

The unviability of clearly political institutions, created by Cuba and Venezuela, stems from there. It can be seen in the decline suffered by the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), which emerged in 2004 to oppose the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Or in the questioning of UNASUR by some governments and broad democratic sectors of the region. María Corina Machado, for example, has been explicit on this point. It is enough to read Ernesto Samper’s statements about the political situation in Venezuela to understand UNASUR’s loss of direction. It is clear, then, that those bodies that were born as an alternative to the traditional ones do not fill, in any way, the institutional vacuum felt in the region.

The border crisis created by the Venezuelan government against Colombia is the most recent example of this lack: Juan Manuel Santos accepted that the crisis should be dealt with in a virtually personal framework. It is true that Ecuador, which mediated, occupies the presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). But the pundits know that the task undertaken by Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, is a lot more about his profile than about the almost non-existent history of that organization, created in 2010.

Correa has a good personal relationship with Santos and he is Bolivarianism’s most active president and one of the closest to Nicolás Maduro. Santos needed to neutralize him without deepening the crisis because the Venezuelan president supports the Colombian government’s peace talks with the FARC in Cuba. Maduro, on the other hand, after leading the crisis to dangerous ground, needed to calm things down with Colombia. He achieved his goal anyway: playing for time behind closed doors because the economic and political situation is becoming unsustainable and parliamentary elections are far away: December 6.

The combination of circumstances contributed to the fact that, after five hours of dialogue, Santos and Maduro came to a conclusion on seven points to solve the border crisis. It was achieved among friends and with the presence of the Uruguayan President, respected by both parties. This is the region’s situation, its legal and political institutions ineffective or unviable.

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