Analysis | Colombo-Venezuelan diplomacy under the Petro administration and beyond


Lara Toscana

Mural representing stronger relations between Colombia and Venezuela (Image: Shishoxisrax on Wikimedia Commons)

Last November, Colombian President Gustavo Petro resumed explorative peace talks with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN), a Marxist-Leninist insurgent group that past governments unsuccessfully tried to bring to a peace agreement.

Given that the ELN has long been aligned with Venezuela, Petro chose Venezuela as one of the guarantor countries to the talks. The first round of negotiations took place in Caracas between November and December 2022, ending with President Petro’s announcement of a bilateral ceasefire. The parties inaugurated the second round of negotiations on February 13, 2023, in Mexico City.

The negotiations serve as an opportunity to reestablish Colombo-Venezuelan diplomatic relations. Petro’s leftist orientation, more aligned with Caracas as opposed to past Colombian governments, has facilitated a bilateral rapprochement. However, the core of the Colombian opposition, represented by the center-right party Centro Democrático, strongly opposes any diplomatic relations with Venezuela. Since center-right parties have dominated Colombia’s politics for decades and could most likely return to power in the future, the improvement in relations may not be sustainable in the long-term. For this reason, Petro should lay the groundwork for future administrations by taking the following steps: consider the opposition’s claims in peace negotiations with the ELN; label relations beyond ideologies and personalities; and promote cooperation in additional priority areas for the opposition.

Petro’s efforts to restore relations between Colombia and Venezuela

The Colombian government’s current peace talks with the ELN have been a unique occasion to resume its diplomatic relations with neighboring Venezuela, which President Nicolás Maduro interrupted in 2019. Petro invited Venezuela to serve as one of the guarantor countries to a peace deal with the ELN, together with Cuba and Norway. Maduro accepted the invitation, stating that “the peace of Colombia is the peace of Venezuela, the peace of South America, the peace of the whole continent.”

Since its origins in the 1960s, the ELN has grown to become one of the largest guerrilla groups in Latin America, and a threat to the whole region due to its involvement in narcotrafficking, illegal mining, kidnapping, and extortion. The talks are part of Petro’s plan for a “total peace,” an effort to negotiate agreements with the main active armed groups in Colombia.

Caracas’s participation is key to the negotiations’ success. The ELN has had a relationship with Venezuela since its birth, making the Colombo-Venezuelan border its most important area of operation. Allegedly, the ELN has also been “heavily supported” by Maduro’s government, which has facilitated the group’s criminal operations. Venezuela’s mediation creates the necessary trust for keeping the ELN at the negotiating table. At the same time, Maduro can benefit from the talks; if successful, they could aid his attempts to restore his country’s reputation in the Latin American and international arena after years of isolation.

Petro’s inclusion of Venezuela as a guarantor country started a process of rapprochement between the two countries, which, on January 1, 2023, resulted in fully reopening the shared border for the first time in seven years. Moreover, the two presidents declared their intention to deepen their relations in sectors such as trade, infrastructure, technology, and energy. Maduro’s plan to reopen the Antonio Ricaurte gas pipeline, which connects La Guajira, Colombia, with Lago de Maracaibo, Venezuela has been significant in this sense. The pipeline would allow Maduro to address the debt for Colombia’s provision of natural gas between 2007 and 2015, which has not yet been honored.

These initiatives aim at boosting Venezuelan-Colombian relations after years of rupture. However, it is crucial to understand whether it is Petro’s figure, more than the Colombian state, that has allowed for a reconciliation with Venezuela. A former militant of the armed group 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril — M-19), Petro is the first leftist president in Colombia’s history. The partial ideological proximity is a key element in understanding the current relations between Caracas and Bogotá. For the first time since he came to power, Maduro now interacts with a Colombian president that, unlike Petro’s predecessors Duque and Uribe, he does not define as “fascist” or a “slaughterer.” If anything, Maduro’s reaction to the election of Petro was accompanied by the enthusiasm of working with a “sister country.”

The center-right’s opposition to relations with Venezuela

Venezuela already served as a guarantor to Colombia’s peace negotiations in the past. Between 2012 and 2016, President Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro fulfilled the role during President Santos’s negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC).

On that occasion, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, then-senator and former president, spoke on behalf of the Centro Democrático, pleading that “the tyrant [Maduro] should not continue as a guarantor of peace that he is not.” In 2018, Colombian President Iván Duque (Centro Democrático) announced Bogotá would leave the Union of South American Nations (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas — UNASUR), defining the organization as an “accomplice to the Venezuelan dictatorship.” In 2019, Duque recognized interim president Juan Guaidó as the legitimate Venezuelan authority. And when the Colombian Senate proposed to resume diplomacy with Maduro, Duque’s party quickly expressed its strong opposition to the proposal. Duque’s characterization of Maduro as an “usurper” and “dictator” embodies the position of the center-right on reestablishing and maintaining ties with Venezuela.

The center-right’s historical domination of Colombian politics, and likely return to power after Petro’s administration, makes relations with Caracas uncertain in the long-term. For this reason, Petro should pursue the following three options to raise the chances of sustaining relations beyond his administration: consider the opposition’s claims in peace negotiations with the ELN; label relations beyond ideologies and personalities; and promote cooperation in priority areas for the opposition.

Recommendation #1: Consider the opposition’s claims in peace negotiations with the ELN

As mentioned at the beginning, Petro’s talks with the ELN are a fundamental piece of the rapprochement with Venezuela. However, the Colombian opposition disagrees with the initiative. The Centro Democrático has on several occasions repudiated the “total peace,” warning that the plan risks bringing about “total impunity.” Petro should seriously consider these concerns, negotiating a peace that balances reconciliation goals with the opposition’s call for justice. This move could convince skeptical political figures to support the initiative, and would also translate into interfacing with Venezuela during negotiations.

The presence of the opposition in the government’s negotiating delegation is equally important. The inclusion of anti-Petro (“antipetrista”) José Félix Lafaurie, a conservative representative of Colombia’s cattlemen, is a great starting point. However, consideration is different than voice. As two Harvard professors state, “voice without consideration is often damaging; it leads to resentment and frustration rather than to acceptance.” Petro should carefully weigh the opposition’s views during the negotiations, making sure that inclusion moves beyond a mere symbolic measure.

A careful consideration of the opposition’s claims can bring about a peace deal that survives several administrations, while simultaneously promoting the interaction of all political sectors with Venezuela through its presence as a guarantor country. This can contribute toward confidence-building and create a precedent that potentially expands to other areas.

Recommendation #2: Frame relations beyond specific ideologies and personalities

Petro should pay attention to the way he frames the relations with Caracas. As he said during the presidential campaign, “diplomatic relations are established with a nation, not with a person.” To avoid the opposition’s backlash, he should insist on presenting the rapprochement with the entire Venezuelan state, instead of framing it in relation to Maduro’s personality. It is essential that this framing counter the opposition’s narratives, which instead seem to point in the direction of a Petro-Maduro relation, instead of a Colombia-Venezuela one. For relations to be sustainable beyond Petro’s presidency, the center-right needs to perceive that Colombia is engaging in a mutually beneficial relationship with the neighboring country, rather than with Maduro’s ideology. And, now that the Venezuelan opposition removed Guaidó from power in January 2023, Petro can persuade the center-right parties to support long-term relations with Caracas without having them renege on their previous recognition of the interim government.

Recommendation #3: Use additional priority areas for the opposition as a “hook” for starting engagement

Petro should identify additional priority areas for the opposition and use them as a “hook” to engage in relations with Venezuela. Migration is a specific issue that the opposition prioritized in the last administrations. This is evident in Duque’s creation of the 2021 Temporal Protection Statute for Venezuelan migrants, which regularizes the status of Venezuelan immigrants for a period of ten years. Álvaro Uribe blamed Chavismo for the Venezuelan exodus, which by May 2022 had reached a record of 1.8 million migrants living in Colombia. The political opposition is well aware of — in their words — “a reality on the border.” They recognize that addressing the root causes of migration instead of only their effects would benefit all political sectors, reducing pressure on Bogotá. A bilateral solution for regulating migrant flows could encourage the opposition to start engagement with Caracas. Migration can be key in confidence-building and maintaining relations in the long term.

The sustainability of bilateral relations is currently uncertain. For this reason, Petro should take measures that boost the opposition’s confidence towards Caracas. By strategically using the peace negotiations with the ELN, framing relations beyond ideology and personalities, and using migration as a “hook,” Petro can push for his country’s full engagement in bilateral relations with Venezuela. Ultimately, these options could help sustain long-lasting peace with the ELN and restore relations between the two neighboring countries, a move that would benefit the people of both.

Lara Toscana is a graduate student in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, focusing on international security and the Latin American region. She is passionate about armed groups, international law, and human rights, with a particular interest in the Colombian conflict.

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