"It would be painful for me
if we were killed, my brother
come my Colombian friend
let’s struggle together
our ties of friendship
will last forever
we are sons of the Patria
which was left to us by the Liberator
and to defend with love
his legacy is our call.”
Guerra de Petroleo (Oil War), Ali Primera
The Colombian population in Venezuela has been the victim of stigmatisation from the country’s reactionary media, bourgeoisie, significant sectors of the population and even from some progressive forces in the country (including the government).
The aim of this article is to expose the context and foundations of five myths concerning this community. This will be done from a critical perspective based on solidarity between sister peoples who suffer from distinct crises, a social and armed conflict in Colombia and the non-conventional warfare in Venezuela.
Venezuelan foreign policy has been characterised by a “diplomacy of peace,” and this policy has been reflected in the positions of the country’s revolutionary parties and organisations.
Many of these organisations supported the struggle of Colombian campesinos in exercising the Universal Law of the Peoples to the Armed Rebellion against the establishment and against the violation of the 2016 peace agreement. They were amongst the first to send internationalist greetings to [the faction of] the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People's’ Army (FARC-EP) upon their return to armed struggle [in 2019], with messages arriving from the Homeland For All Party, the Simon Bolívar Coordinating Group and the Communist Party to mention just a few.
This return to arms came after a period of daily genocide of social leaders and ex-combatants since the signing of the peace agreement. Last December, mass graves were discovered in [the Colombian provinces of] Dabeiba, Antioquia Department, Valledupar, Cesar Department and Rihohacha, La Guajira Department. The Venezuelan state and the entire popular movement has repeatedly demanded that the Colombian government cease to blame third-parties for the planned dismantling of the peace accords, calling for the enforcement of these agreements and the granting of security guarantees to all the political opposition members, rather than focusing its war diplomacy against Venezuela.
Venezuela: diplomacy of peace with social justice
To learn about the myths concerning the Colombian community in Venezuela, it is necessary to understand the diplomatic relations that give root to the tensions between the two political projects.
It is also essential to highlight the Venezuelan government’s most important diplomatic actions in the face of the social and armed conflict in Colombia. These actions alone expose the roots of the Venezuelan state’s position concerning the conflict, but also partly explain the inter-connections between these actions and the whole of the Bolivarian political project, its revolutionary parties and the bulk of the Chavista popular movement.
Venezuela’s diplomacy of peace with social justice towards Colombia, which was led by Commander Hugo Chavez, has focused on the defence of human rights, international humanitarian law, the Bolivarian geopolitics of peace, sovereignty and the self-determination of the peoples.
This diplomacy could also be found in the governments of former [right wing] Presidents Carlos Andrés Pérez of Democratic Action Party and Rafael Caldera of Copei Party, who differed from Chavez in their Bolivarian and class nature.
As examples, we can cite the following political and humanitarian actions which sought to contribute to ending the social and armed conflict which has existed in Colombia since 1964:
- Caracas was the diplomatic headquarters of the peace talks between Colombia’s [umbrella guerrilla group from 1987 to the early 1990’s, the] Simon Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Board and the government in 1991. Due to the coup attempt in Venezuela on February 4, 1992, the headquarters for the talks were moved to Tlaxcala, Mexico.
- Chavez’s mediation and the leadership of Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba which led to the unilateral and humanitarian release of prisoners of war in the hands of the FARC-EP on January 10, 2008.
- Chavez's request to Venezuela’s National Assembly to grant belligerent status to the insurgents of January 13, 2008. This recognition was indispensable to build trust at a time of peace talks, after several attempts had been derailed by the Colombian oligarchy.
- The mediation of [former minister and governor] Ramon Rodríguez Chacín for the Venezuelan government and Cordoba’s leadership in pushing for the unilateral and humanitarian liberation of [kidnapped Colombian right wing local politicians] Gloria Polanco, Jorge Gechem, Orlando Beltrán and Luis Eladio Pérez by the FARC-EP in February 2008.
- Venezuela's diplomatic accompaniment to the peace process in Havana, Cuba from 2012 to 2016.
Despite the amendments to the peace agreement following the October 2016 referendum, and the current genocide that bleeds the Colombian people, the Bolivarian Revolution remains firm in its commitment to peace with social justice. Amid constant threats of political and military siege against its territory, threats which have only failed so far, the historical work of the Venezuelan government of mediation and acting as a counterweight to the Colombian oligarchy has not wavered.
Five myths about the Colombian community in Venezuela
Myth 1. There are 6 million Colombians in Venezuela
In May 2015, the Venezuelan foreign office stated that there were 5 million Colombians in Venezuela, a figure which later evolved into 6 million in the official discourse. To date, no source has been provided to explain how this number was reached, and according to the latest figures from the National Statistical Institute in the 2011 census there were 721,791 Colombian-born people registered here. While it should be pointed out that this census did not include dual citizens or those with Colombian parents, there is no official record of the 6 million Colombians in Venezuela that are always referred to by different government authorities. As such, to the extent that this information cannot be verified, it cannot be considered reliable.
A new census is currently underway in Venezuela, which we hope will yield new figures not only concerning Venezuelan emigration, but also Colombian immigration in Venezuela. This census should address the complexity of dual nationality, border populations and other aspects.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the claim of 6 million Colombians in Venezuela came in 2015 just as the country entered a dark period of a total absence of official economic and social data. This data is only just starting to be released, for example with the official hyperinflation figures recently published by the Venezuelan Central Bank.
Myth 2. Colombians in Venezuela are refugees because they fled armed conflict and paramilitaries
In 2017, the public information officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Venezuela, Madeleine Labbiento Noda, said "We estimate that there are around 172,957 people of interest [in Venezuela]. Of that figure, 7,861 refugees are legally recognised by the country’s National Commission for Refugees (CONARE). Ninety-nine percent of the displaced people living in Venezuela are Colombian."
The 2017 UNHCR report also indicated that there are 7,876 formal refugees in the country and 114,934 in comparable conditions, of which 9,192 are cared for by the UNHCR, as well as 904 asylum seekers. This gives a total of 123,714 people under the care of the UNHCR.
As such, one can conclude that not all the Colombian population registered in Venezuela are under the legal status of political refuge and have not applied for refugee status, refuting this claim.
Myth 3. All Colombians are paramilitaries, guerrillas, mobsters or drug traffickers
These stigmas that are stacked against each other within Colombia also have a correlating presence in Venezuela. While undoubtedly Colombia has a society which internalises mafia violence and which has naturalised violence in the media, the existence of direct and indirect victims of the conflict is clearly seen in Venezuela.
According to the Colombian government's Unique Victim Registry, from 1985 to January 31, 2020, conflict violence only generated 8,953,040 victims in the country, and 179,799 victims of forced disappearance. These figures fail to mention that Colombia currently has the highest levels of forced displacement in the world at 8,862,896.
The simplification of the Colombian conflict does allow for the analysis of factors such as the fact that those who go to war are children from poverty-stricken peasant families. These children make these life choices due to the lack of opportunities to study and find decent work, converting them into the main victims of capitalism.
The chauvinist opinion matrix tends to ignore these victims like the rest of the Colombian people: the anti-paramilitary campesinos, the working class, housewives, academics and youth.
In turn, the simplification of Colombian society as being comprised of only guerrillas, paramilitaries, mafias and drug traffickers is a tool which has been used by the Venezuelan government for its own political ends of fostering internal patriotism and positioning a "foreign threat” as a way to increase popularity. This is the same tactic used by the Colombian Right when it accuses Venezuela of being a state-sponsor of international terrorism.
While it is certain that at least two communist guerrilla groups exist in Colombia (FARC-EP and the National Liberation Army (ELN)), as well as two paramilitary facades of the Colombian army (Colombian United Self-Defence Force and the Black Eagles) and different expressions of organised crime, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the initial myth is only a half-truth that hides the role of victims and civilians in the conflict.
Myth 4. Paramilitaries are a Colombian "phenomenon"
Paramilitaries are war weapons of the bourgeois state. They are not a phenomenon, but a state policy.
In the case of Colombia, they are the Colombian army with hoods on. The Black Eagles and the Colombian United Self-Defence Force are nothing more than the names under which the various agencies of the Colombian military hire hit men and mercenaries to do their dirty work.
Allegations of ties between state officials and these paramilitary networks are constant. On February 6, after the death of the Colombian paramilitary commander Popeye, the general-in-chief of the Colombian army expressed his public condolences to the family. In contrast, condolences have never been offered to the relatives of the victims of false positives, mass graves and forced disappearances, in which the army has always participated.
Paramilitaries as a weapon of war always respond to a violent accumulation of capital, being precisely the safeguard that makes it possible. While this accumulation creates inequality, and with it resistance, it also generates a military safeguard. Paramilitaries secure the enrichment of a social class at the cost of the forced displacement of campesinos, allowing transnationals open access to the mining-energy extraction in blood-soaked fields.
In Venezuela, our natural and energy resources are mainly gold and oil. The Venezuelan state remains bourgeois in nature and responds to its class character. To say that paramilitaries in Venezuela are Colombian is a half-truth, as there are Venezuelan mercenaries, retired military leaders and traitors to the homeland who have been trained and financed in Colombia, alongside troops from all over the world, in counterinsurgency war at the US military bases.
Venezuela’s right-wing parties have a great deal of responsibility for this. In general terms, a paramilitary presence is directed, sponsored or financed by a bourgeois state, being the guarantor of a ruling class in power. As such, the Venezuelan Right, as a social class and part of the parasitic bourgeoisie which defends the traditional social establishment, is also directly involved in financing paramilitaries. The reality of this goes beyond the investigations and allegations made by the Venezuelan government.
Although the political and military history of Venezuela and Colombia has been, in some respects, forged almost simultaneously, it should also be noted that violence and paramilitaries in Venezuela have specific characteristics that have not been sufficiently analysed. Expressions of border violence are sometimes shown in political junctures, but what is happening with gold and oil revenues in other parts of the country is not closely observed.
Myth 5. Violence by the Venezuelan opposition is paramilitary violence
While it is true that there is a social class that, using the Venezuelan opposition parties, encourages Colombian paramilitary interference in the country, it is also necessary to look at our own responsibility to understand and deal with political violence as an expression of class struggle in the unconventional war scene we find ourselves in.
It must be clarified that political vandalism is not paramilitary violence, organised crime is not paramilitary violence, and petty crime is not paramilitary violence. The essence of paramilitary violence is that it forms part of a counterinsurgency and is more forceful in scenarios where there is some hope that national rent is re-appropriated for an alternative project, as is the case in Venezuela.
However, to say that all of the opposition’s political violence is of a paramilitary nature does not help in understanding the Venezuelan political crisis. To the contrary, it fuels the criminalisation of poverty and stigmatisation against sectors of the population which are opposed to the government-led project or who are legitimately unhappy and let down by the lousy local and regional authorities (for example in public services).
The opposition-led violent street protests of 2014-2017 of the east of Caracas, where professional weapons were used, are not the same as road barricades which are set up in the Valles del Tuy (Miranda State) or Tovar (Merida State) because residents have been without water or gas for a month. One cannot stigmatise the right to protest of people who may or may not agree with the project of 21st Century Socialism or who demand efficiency in public management. This does not help grasp the new political map that was established by Chavez’s death.
These conceptual "confusions" are due to the non-understanding of the phenomenon of political violence in Venezuela. The trivialisation and use of these elements in official discourse always responds to class interests: when it is in one’s interest, one blames everything on paramilitaries (who are always Colombian) and one frees oneself of responsibility to control the violence and the insecurity that the country lives through.
While in Colombia, for the political Right the enemy is internal (campesinos, social leaders, students who reclaims their rights) for the Left in Venezuela the enemy is external (the Lima Group, the United States, imperialism). In this way, any scientific possibility of addressing the phenomena of opposition-led social protests and other experiments with public policies is lost. By bringing both cases together in the same dimensional field, the government loses the possibility of winning over citizens and ordinary people, who only want to have permanent supplies of water, gas and electricity in their houses, to a national political project.
This analysis of the diplomacy of peace when confronted with war, Bolivarian internationalism, and the foundations of the five myths concerning the Colombian community in Venezuela responds to the need to open up a political, ideological and academic discussion regarding the role of governments in Latin America in the face of peace with social justice, as well as in the context of increasing state terrorism and paramilitary violence.
The need for peace with social justice and the eradication of paramilitarism sit in complete opposition to the region’s conservative trend that has gained strength through the Bolivian dictatorship, fierce neoliberalism in Chile and the “sub-presidency” in Colombia [as the mandate of President Ivan Duque is popularly referred to in the country in reference to his subordination to ex-President Alvaro Uribe]. Latin American movements and parties are historically quite backward when it comes to the ideological debate about state terrorism.
Faced with this conservative escalation, the firm solidarity of the peoples in the midst of imperialist wars and wars of resistance contributes to achieving peace with social justice and the search for political solutions to all social and armed conflicts in the world. Finally, it must be remembered that in all wars, it is the poorest who die first, and achieving peace does not imply pacifying capitalism nor silencing the rifles of the people.
Danna Urdaneta is a Venezuelan writer, poet and editor. She is a specialist in the Colombian social and armed conflict, political prisoners, and the international movement for peace with social justice. Her slogan is: Everything for poetry, Nothing for war.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.