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A Catastrophe Foretold

US intervention in Venezuela wouldn't just be a catastrophe for that country — it would be a disaster for neighboring Colombia too.

Presidential Guard soldiers keep watch during the referendum on a peace accord to end the fifty-two-year-old guerrilla war between the FARC and the state on October 2, 2016 in Bogota, Colombia. Mario Tama / Getty

As it struggles to emerge from the shadow of a decades-long armed conflict, the last thing Colombia needs is a fresh one breaking out on its doorstep. The dangerous escalation in tensions in neighboring Venezuela, however, has increased concerns over military confrontation, in which Colombia would be central to any campaign to oust Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. The consequences would be catastrophic for both countries.

Since the crisis began with Juan Guaidó’s self-proclamation as president of Venezuela, the screws have kept tightening. In a January 28 press briefing, US neocon-in-chief John Bolton displayed a notepad bearing the words “5,000 troops to Colombia,” while Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that “all options are on the table.” Guaidó appears willing to submit Venezuela to war if it puts him in power. Paradoxically, it is those who profess Venezuela to be in the throes of humanitarian disaster who prescribe bombs as the remedy.

In recent days, Colombian social media has carried reports of troop movements on the Venezuelan and Panamanian borders and an increased US air force presence. Meanwhile, Maduro has resisted the US’s attempts to force “humanitarian aid” into Venezuela, understandably reluctant to allow unverified cargoes into the country.

On February 13, Colombian president Iván Duque visited the White House and reiterated Colombia’s unwavering support for Guaidó and said that “obstruction of humanitarian aid is a crime against humanity.” US senator Marco Rubio subsequently visited the Venezuela-Colombia border, apparently to ensure the aid’s delivery, happily indifferent to the contradictions of demanding Venezuela receive $20 million of aid while simultaneously supporting sanctions that have cost the country billions.

But while Colombia may be aligned to the most powerful military machine in history, its key infrastructure would be vulnerable to retaliatory strikes: the oil refineries in Cartagena and Barrancabermeja would be hard to defend, as would the seven major bridges spanning the Magdalena river that bisects the country.

Considering what’s at stake in Colombia — including the future of its fragile peace accord — you may think the government would want to resolve the crisis diplomatically. With more than two thousand kilometers of shared, porous border, any outbreak of violence in Venezuela would spill into Colombia. But for President Duque, accommodating Washington seems worth any price, no matter how high the cost to the Colombian people.

It is not only proximity that makes Colombia important to any military campaign in Venezuela. In 1999, shortly after Hugo Chávez entered office in Venezuela, Washington and Bogotá signed the Plan Colombia agreement to make Colombia one of the world’s highest recipients of US military funding. Plan Colombia, ostensibly a counternarcotics program, ensured a strong US military presence in Latin America just as Venezuela swung leftward, a shift replicated across much of the region in the ensuing years. Colombia formed a strategic bulwark against chavismo, maintaining a highly militarized outpost in the region as US forces were expelled elsewhere.

By expanding the capacity of the armed forces and turning a blind eye to army atrocities, the United States reinforced the Colombian state at the height of the FARC insurgency. Historically, the US military has operated freely in Colombia or, more commonly, entrusted its interests to the compliant state: the 1929 massacre of over one thousand banana workers in dispute with the US-owned United Fruit Company and US training of prototype paramilitary groups to target “communist subversion” in the 1960s are cases in point.

Relations have not always been antagonistic between Colombia and Venezuela, who share a national hero, the liberator Simón Bolívar. In 1991, Venezuela hosted peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrilla groups, and it also formally accompanied the 2012–16 Havana dialogues. Conflict bubbled up in 2008, however, when Colombia unilaterally attacked a FARC guerrilla camp in Ecuador, killing several people, including a senior FARC commander. In response, Ecuador and Venezuela suspended diplomatic relations and amassed troops on their borders with Colombia. Ultimately, Colombia was forced to back down. President Álvaro Uribe’s public show of conciliation reflected left dominance in Latin America: right-wing Colombia stood to lose the most from protracted hostilities.

For the uribistas, back in power, today’s outlook is much rosier.

Duque Shifts

Media speculation over military intervention in Venezuela grew after Duque’s election in June 2018 and intensified following Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil in October. Venezuela’s two largest neighbors are both now run by neoliberal right-wing administrations bitterly hostile to chavismo. They in effect ensnare Venezuela in a pincer: Colombia from the west and Brazil from the south.

Besides opposition to the peace agreement, Duque’s election campaign was notable for vilifying Venezuela, exploiting the neighbor’s economic struggles to attack Duque’s progressive opponent, Gustavo Petro. In 2016, Duque’s party, the Democratic Center, orchestrated the successful “no” vote in the peace plebiscite, which partly explains his willingness to risk the agreement’s future to pursue Maduro’s overthrow.

Three days before Duque’s inauguration, Maduro survived an assassination attempt when a drone exploded above a speech he was giving in Caracas. Maduro blamed the Colombian government. With tensions heightening, Duque cast himself as a moderate compared to the hardline former president Uribe, Duque’s mentor, who many Colombians suspect is the true power behind the throne.

Since then, increased US pressure on Venezuela appears to have signaled a shift. Furthermore, on January 17, a car bomb attack on a police academy in Bogotá killed twenty-one cadets. The National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s last guerrilla insurgency, subsequently claimed responsibility. Large demonstrations against “terrorism” were held in Colombian cities and attended by Duque and other high-profile politicians. Many demonstrators demanded a tough response to the ELN. Colombian media accused Maduro of harboring the group. The Colombian right was on the warpath, and it came just days before Guaidó’s self-proclamation in Venezuela. Sectors of Duque’s uribista political base now sense a monumental opportunity: to overthrow chavismo, crush the ELN, and end the hated FARC peace deal.

Stalling Peace

In November 2016, the Juan Manuel Santos government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed an agreement to end over half a century of internal conflict. The agreement focuses not only on ending violence, but also tackling historic socio-political conditions that generated guerrilla insurgency. Unfortunately, the agreement has suffered from slow or non-implementation in important areas. In a recent report, the United Nations found that “peace faces serious obstacles to its consolidation,” particularly around polarization, reincorporation, and legal challenges.

Most alarming is the chronic human rights insecurity across much of the country. Up to five hundred social activists and human rights defenders have been murdered since the agreement was signed. Impunity surrounds most cases. Even when the material killers are caught, the intellectual authors are rarely identified.

Violence is particularly concentrated in regions historically affected by poverty, underdevelopment, and conflict. Following the FARC’s withdrawal and reformation as a political party, armed groups have sought to fill resulting power vacuums. This has brought confrontation with communities resistant to illicit activities such as coca production, illegal mining, and extortion. In 2018, coca production and forced displacement — both of which theoretically should be in decline — soared as armed groups made their presence felt.

This instability could escalate and spread if war breaks out in Venezuela. Under the shadow of conflict, familiar patterns of violence could target leftist political groups, substituting the old tag of “guerrilla sympathizer” for “Maduro sympathizer.” Long-established clientelist relations between elites and paramilitary groups could exploit conflict with Venezuela to consolidate ruling-class interests, targeting trade unionists, community leaders, and environmental defenders who would be labelled supporters of Maduro. “Stigmatization against anyone who is associated with the Left will increase, and that will have a very negative impact,” says Andrei Gómez-Suárez, a Colombian political analyst and author.

Border Disputes

Colombia’s oil-producing border zones with Venezuela are wracked by instability. Regions such as Catatumbo and Arauca have high coca yields and are lucrative for whoever controls them. Strategically, the border location makes it easy to evade security forces and shift contraband. Historic state neglect compounds the difficult social conditions.

“Since President Duque’s arrival, we’ve seen an intensification in military force,” says Jhunior Maldonado of the Catatumbo Peasant Farmers Association, a regional human rights organization that had five of its members murdered last year. “We’ve seen troop and tank mobilizations. The armed forces say its territorial control, or border exercises. But these movements are not normally seen on the border.”

Recently, new conflicts have emerged, involving a plethora of armed actors besides the army. These include right-wing paramilitary groups, so-called “FARC dissident groups” that have not subscribed to the peace process, and the ELN. Some are fighting each other, others against the state: mainly it’s a combination of both. Each would be inexorably sucked into conflict between Colombia and Venezuela and could help advance larger objectives free from the restrictive standards of international conduct.

This could produce a Syria-style situation in which right-wing paramilitaries are cast as “rebels” and given US backing. Although officially demobilized in 2006, remnants of these groups remain active. In November, Colombian paramilitaries attacked an army base in Amazonas, southern Venezuela, killing three soldiers. A paramilitary campaign in Venezuela would occupy security forces, target chavismo’s popular base, and spread terror and chaos. Experience of US-backed interventionist tactics elsewhere, from Central America to the Middle East, suggests these groups would not lack material and financial support.

However, groups that oppose the Colombian state may also sense an opportunity and ramp up their own military actions. Stretched Colombian security forces, already at war, would likely resort to serious attacks on human rights attempting to quell internal instability. Civil society would bear the brunt, especially in border zones.

Border communities often cross daily between countries for work. “In the case of [the Colombian border city] Cucutá, there is over 70 percent unemployment or informal employment. State abandonment means many people depend economically on Venezuela,” says Jhunior Maldonado. Closing the border, and restricting this vital economic lifeline, would cause social conditions to deteriorate further. Consequently, illegal economies could surge, enriching armed groups and providing them with a large recruitment pool.

Venezuelan migration into Colombia has played into hawkish hands. Stoked by media xenophobia, and with many Colombians already suffering from dire economic conditions, migrants are often unwelcome, viewed as an unsustainable burden.

Yet there is less focus on the millions of Colombians living in Venezuela, many of whom fled there during the armed conflict. With so many of either country’s citizens in the respective other, what would an outbreak of war mean? Would all these people be forced to abandon lives they have built, in some cases, over decades? Would they be expelled, or worse? Would they remain passive as the state where they reside threatened their homes and families? The potential blowback — social unrest and state repression driven by media hysteria over fifth columns — could engulf urban areas.

With Colombia’s security apparatus and economy inextricably beholden to US influence, the country is highly susceptible to Washington’s directives. That Colombia potentially would be a willing agent in its own catastrophe encapsulates the right-wing authoritarian model that uribismo, enabled by massive US military backing, has sought to impose on the country. Under the Right, Colombia’s conflict was lucrative for multinationals and domestic elites: indeed, a new war could further deepen capitalist enrichment and regenerate old accumulative practices of massacre, forced displacement, and forced disappearance.

While deadlock in Venezuela persists, the hawks will push ever harder for full invasion. The inferno of war in Venezuela would consume Colombia in its flames. With the future of both countries at stake, voices of reason must prevail.