Armando Benedetti in the last election campaign Juan Carlos Zapata
The governments of Venezuela and Colombia are moving forward in normalizing their ties, which have been broken since 2019, and almost simultaneously this Thursday announced the names who will head their respective embassies in Bogotá and Caracas. The decision comes in the first week of Gustavo Petro’s presidency in Colombia, after the left-wing leader defended the need for this foreign policy turnaround to ease years of tensions during his election campaign.
Nicolás Maduro elected Félix Plasencia, a Chavista diplomat and politician, who was his chancellor from 2021 until last May. Plasencia, who trained in Venezuela, Belgium and England as a foreign service representative, has been in the diplomatic career since 1991, before the rise of Chavismo. For around 30 years he has been close to the current Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, who is also a career diplomat. Among other things, he was Protocol Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Rodríguez, Minister of Tourism and Foreign Trade of Maduro between 2019 and 2020 and Ambassador to China between 2020 and 2021. He holds Spanish nationality since he is the son of Tenerife is from the sanctions lists from Washington and Brussels, which includes more than a hundred Venezuelan officials.
For his part, Gustavo Petro appointed former Senator Armando Benedetti, one of the first figures of the traditional political class to support his presidential campaign. The son of a former Barranquilla minister, Benedetti has had a long political career, supporting first Álvaro Uribe, then Juan Manuel Santos and now Petro. A longtime campaigner for the La U party, where he was a senator from 2010 to 2022, he backed candidates on Petro’s Historic Pact list in this year’s general election and was the one who managed his agenda as a candidate. No one flew across the country with him anymore or was more intimate with him during the election campaign.
The Colombia-Venezuelan border became the busiest in Latin America, and at its peak in 2008 trade reached $7.29 billion. “President Gustavo Petro, I will surprise you if we reach $10,000 million in trade exchanges if we benefit the more than 8 million Colombians who live on the border. No imaginary line will again separate us as brothers, ”Benedetti reacted after the news on his social networks. Petro, who announced his decision in response to Maduro’s gesture, entrusted him with the “tough task” of normalizing relations and “enabling it to build prosperity between Colombia and Venezuela for both peoples.”
The change of government in Colombia poses a challenge amid Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis. The breakdown in ties has left in limbo the 2.5 million Venezuelans who have crossed the border in search of a better life in recent years. On the other side have also arrived dozens of political leaders, journalists and human rights defenders, the exiles who left behind the most repressive years of Chavismo under Maduro’s command, who are worried about this reopening. During these years of upheaval, Colombia has had to face an unprecedented migratory crisis, while the border crossings, which have been temporarily closed and converted to pedestrian crossings since 2015, are a kind of no man’s land where organized crime and armed irregular groups live have gained ground.
For thousands of Colombians who settled in Venezuela years ago during the worst decades of armed conflict, the lack of consular posts due to the breakdown in relations was also a stumbling block. In the last presidential election, Colombians had to travel to the border to vote.
Political animosity during the Iván Duque period also minimized trade exchanges. Plasencia has what it takes to get the binational economy going again, as he was not only foreign minister, but also minister for tourism and foreign trade. This is the issue that Colombian and Venezuelan businessmen have lobbied intensely for in recent years. Barely two weeks after the second round, in which Petro was elected, they signed the so-called “border agreement” in the city of San Cristóbal, where they arrived on foot after crossing the international bridge between Cúcuta and San Antonio del Táchira.
It is up to Plasencia and Benedetti to revive these exchanges, but also in sensitive cases such as that of Monómeros, the Venezuelan fertilizer company based in Colombia, one of Venezuela’s assets abroad, over which Maduro had fought with opposition leader Juan Guaidó with the full support of Duke.
The thaw between Bogotá and Caracas began almost immediately after Petro was elected in the second round on June 19. It took him just three days as President-elect to speak to Maduro and confirm that they intend to resume formal steps and “the full exercise of human rights” at a border that has been left illegal for years with the notorious restore the presence of an archipelago of illegal armed groups, including the ELN guerrillas and FARC dissidents, who have withdrawn from the peace process. The border line, which is more than 2,200 kilometers long, is porous, full of so-called trails through which all kinds of contraband goods have historically flowed.
Even before Petro moved into the Casa de Nariño, the two governments had already agreed to move forward with reopening and restoring trade exchanges, and agreed to appoint both the ambassadors they announced this Thursday and the consular officers . They have also announced that they will work to improve security. Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino reported Tuesday that, on Maduro’s orders, he would “immediately” contact his Colombian counterpart Iván Velásquez to “re-establish” military ties between the two countries.
The ambassadors’ announcement comes on the same day that Colombian Foreign Minister Álvaro Leyva led a delegation to pave the way for peace talks to resume with the ELN. In a complex diplomatic chess game, Leyva was already key to reaching an agreement with the extinct FARC guerrillas, and many observers believe Venezuela will be a key player in eventual negotiations with the ELN, the last active guerrillas in Colombia Analysts, who belong to several, attribute a binational character to it.
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