On August 19, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s made the sovereign, yet irresponsible, decision to declare a state of emergency, close and militarize state borders, and deport undocumented Colombians en masse.
According to Colombian authorities, Maduro has expelled over 1,000 Colombians, in many cases illegally and in violation of human rights.
The Venezuelan government invoked the measure under the dubious pretense that Colombian paramilitary forces attacked Venezuelan army officers, and as a way to curb cross-border smuggling.
However, anonymous intelligence sources told El Nuevo Herald a story that better fits the Venezuelan regime’s authoritarian and criminal nature. They claim the real reason for the border closure was a “dispute between drug cartels [run by] members of the Bolivarian National Guard and the Army.”
Other hypothesis have since emerged, including one from former Congresswoman María Corina Machado, who said the order came from Cuba’s Castro brothers, just like other major Chavista policies.
She claims that that the 2012 Army reform named Plan Sucre calls for the Venezuelan Armed Forces’ (FAN) to launch an “extended people’s war.” In order to do this, FAN was to “start a conflict with Colombia to create a state of alarm and confusion, in order to control the whole Venezuelan nation through the military.”
On the other hand, the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) believes this is Maduro’s latest attempt to avoid certain defeat in the upcoming legislative elections in December. They say the government is manufacturing a foreign conflict to agitate the population and call off the elections.
In the wake of the crisis, Colombia failed to secure a meeting to discuss the issue at the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS). These meetings are usually called in extreme situations, however, a majority of states voted against holding one to deal with the humanitarian crisis on the border.
In fact, Colombia’s request fell just one vote short. Venezuela, backed by her ALBA partners, succeeded in blocking the initiative, limiting the debate to members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), where Central American, Caribbean, and North American countries do not participate.
This demonstrates that President Maduro’s regional influence is still alive, particularly among socialist governments, even if many of them are in crisis and their leaders face corruption allegations. Even Panama, which initially supported Colombia, caved in to pressure from Venezuelan lobbyists.
The affair reveals how the main international body of the Americas continues to be polarized and gridlocked by a group that disregards its resolutions, shows no interest in defending democracy and human rights, nor in upholding the authority of the OAS. It should come as no surprise that many member states now question the role of the OAS and demand reform.
Failure at the OAS brought the conflict back to the bilateral level. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos initially sought to take the issue to UNASUR, but pressure from both his own party and the opposition forced him to abandon the idea. Given Venezuela’s support in UNASUR, Santos instead announced plans to take the matter to the United Nations.
The problem with trying to resolve this conflict on a bilateral level is that, at this point, there is no more room for diplomacy and negotiation. Since the beginning, Colombia has sought to resolve the issue diplomatically, but the Venezuelan government has refused to engage in dialogue. And when Maduro said he would meet with his Colombian counterpart to discuss the matter, he was far from sincere.
Santos can no longer ignore these actions and engage in dialogue as if nothing has happened. That would undermine his authority and reputation both at home and abroad.
While two-way negotiations are unlikely to solve the impasse, Colombia still has options. Besides the United Nations, Santos plans to go to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the International Organization for Migration.
He has also promised to file a formal complaint against Maduro himself at the International Criminal Court, where crimes against humanity are not subject to a statute of limitations.
The international justice system works. Slowly, but it works.