Last week, Venezuelans lined up at their westerly border to visit Colombia for just a few hours and buy the essential everyday supplies once offered to them at low, subsidized prices by their prosperous socialist government.
As the global oil price continues to hover under $50 a barrel, Venezuela – a country for which 95 percent of exports are related to oil – has been sustaining a “massive” budget deficit, which the Finance Ministry has been funding by printing more money, thus causing runaway inflation.
During this humanitarian crisis where Venezuelans cannot seem to find their life-saving medications at local pharmacies, and economic hardship where the bolivar’s inflation rates hover over 100 percent, Colombia has been willing to welcome its neighbors in need. This, while Colombia, itself a 1 million barrel a day crude producer, continues to suffer from the same market pressures causing political collapse in Venezuela.
But, as oil prices slowly and steadily recover, will this model of brotherly cooperation prove to be sustainable in the long run?
To put the current conflict in perspective, it is important to note the history of the border closure policy and the political climate that allowed the development to occur.
On 13 August, 2015, the Venezuelan pollster Datanalisis released the results of President Nicolas Maduro’s latest nationwide popularity survey, and the situation looked dire for the ruling administration.
During the months of June and July, the freshman leader’s approval rating fell to just 24.3 percent – 2 points lower than in May, when pollsters thought the figure could not drop any further.
A short week-and-a-half later, a new policy by the Maduro administration led to the deportation of more than 1,000 Colombians – tearing apart hundreds of border-dwelling families. The Venezuelan military then began the gradual process of shutting down border crossings, until, by the beginning of September, the border had been completely sealed.
Maduro—the socialist successor to the late Hugo Chavez—justified his decision as a necessary tool for the economic and physical safety of his citizens. He claimed that Colombians had been taking advantage of the open border to smuggle goods, causing severe supply shortages in Venezuela.
His political opponents objected to the severe decision, calling Maduro out for “heightening fear towards a foreign enemy” in order to increase his own popularity.
Maduro’s argument tied into local perceptions of Colombia’s long-term guerilla militancy problem as well, though a long-term analysis of Venezuela and Colombia’s history shows the willingness of both nations to work together when an issue is of joint concern:
Spanish colonizers divided the areas known today as Colombia and Venezuela into the provinces of Santa Marta and New Andalucia in the early 16th century. In the 19th century, revolutionary and military leader Simon Bolivar successfully led the movement to free both nations, as well as Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama from Spanish rule.
Venezuela and Colombia were both part of Gran Colombia, which later broke apart due to political differences between Bolivar, who preferred a strong presidency, and his former ally, turned rival, Francisco de Paula Santander, who favored constitutional rule.
Border disputes and related issues have been a large part of diplomatic tensions between Colombia and Venezuela over time.
From the start of the Spanish colonial period to its end, both nations struggled to find a resolution to the border dispute regarding the Guajira Peninsula – a piece of land inhabited by the Wayuu indigenous tribe, which vehemently resisted colonization, making border delimitation difficult both before and after the region’s independence.
In 1891, after the two nations failed to solve the dispute on their own, they invited the Spanish Crown to serve as an arbitrator, which led to the Maria Cristina Ruling of 1891.
Complex geographical factors compromised the integrity of the ruling, and eventually, a Swiss court had to be summoned to determine legally and historically justifiable boundaries.
Centuries of conflict between the neighboring territories have left political structures in a state of competition, akin to the kind of region rivalries saw between Morocco and Algeria or India and Pakistan, though without the consecutive wars.
Instances of violent conflict have occurred, mostly as a result of the actions of guerrilla groups or geopolitical misunderstandings.
In the 1990’s a Colombian guerrilla group called the National Liberation Army (ELN) attacked a military post in Venezuela, leading to the deaths of eight civilians and 12 marines. A few years later, the same group attacked the Colombian border town of Ragonvalia before entering Venezuela to wreak further havoc.
After official talks between the two nations concluded, then Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera authorized the Colombian military to enter his country to defeat the guerrillas, marking the beginning of an era of cooperation in times of joint pain and violence.
Though the 1990s saw the development of military cooperation between the two states, Maduro’s evaluation of the Venezuelan people’s feelings suggests intraborder tensions remain just underneath the surface, ripe for political plundering.
As the border opens more permanently – five crossings will remain open for 12 hours a day – and cross-border trade recovers, it is probable that the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who rushed into Colombia last week, and those who will do so in the coming weeks, will remember fondly the relief they found across the border.
Jose Gregorio Sanchez, a resident from the border town of Urena, expressed his thanks for the “warm welcome” Colombia showed him while he spoke to AFP.
After large numbers of Venezuelans spend time in Colombia and find reprieve from the shortcomings of their own government, it’s unlikely that Maduro’s xenophobic tactics would prove effective yet another time, even as oil prices strengthen.
By Zainab Calcuttawala for Oilprice.com