Colombia and Venezuela: Beyond the Border

Analyst Víctor de Currea-Lugo argues that the Caracas line that imperialist forces are behind recent border conflicts may be “political infantilism.”

By Víctor de Currea-Lugo
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The Colombia-Venezuela border in Apure state. (Víctor de Currea-Lugo)
The Colombia-Venezuela border in Apure state. (Víctor de Currea-Lugo)

Warfare, along with its death and lies, is being aggravated on the Colombo-Venezuelan border.

Diffuse, fragmented, and biased news of the recent conflict is spread, but analysis of the events should go beyond quoting numbers and inventing statistics. A real analysis must be carried out on several levels: firstly regarding the facts; secondly Bogotá’s and Caracas’ perspectives; and thirdly the international implications.

There is little clarity about what happened on the Colombo-Venezuelan border of late. What is known is that there was fighting and that it left dozens captured and several dead and wounded. We also saw the forced displacement of families from La Victoria and Urdaneta [Apure state, Venezuela] who sought refuge in nearby rural areas or crossed into Colombian territory as refugees.

Images show shelling near populated centers and wounded people arriving at local health centers. Some audios expose civilian complaints about the behavior of the Venezuelan military, including arbitrary arrests and civilian deaths.

What happened is obviously directly related to the Colombian armed conflict and any analysis of the confrontation cannot be detached from this reality. Colombia’s failure to implement peace has boiled over not only into different parts of the country such as Cauca and Catatumbo [Colombia], but also into the country’s borders with Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

Armed border actors

Violence on the Colombo-Venezuelan border area is not homogeneous. It cannot be reduced to the presence of armed groups because it also relates to poverty and abandonment in the region, where there are large numbers of bi-national families.

The border has heated up and even survived due to legal and illegal cross-border trade. This phenomenon cannot be understood without taking into account the responsibility of both countries’ armed forces (even if it is responsibility through omission).

What is happening relates to local power dynamics, which vary from region to region according to particular alliances. In some areas, armed actors coexist and help each other, while they are enemies elsewhere.

According to local Apure sources, the recent conflicts were initiated by Venezuelan troops and were directed against dissenting bases of the [demobilized] Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which do not follow the line of Iván Márquez [former-FARC commander and current co-leader of the dissident Second Marquetalia, which has returned to arms]. However, sources closer to Caracas than to the border suggest it was carried out by a US-led offensive executed by Colombian paramilitary groups.

This draws interest because, despite local sources referring to clashes between FARC dissidents and the Venezuelan military, some in Caracas insist on a narrative that places the US behind it all. Of course, the United States does not rule out military action against Venezuela, but reducing all local dynamics to a confrontation with imperialism is political infantilism.

The latest information from the Colombian border town of Arauquita confirms that the attacked camps [on the Venezuelan side] did belong to FARC dissidents, but that they were already abandoned when the Venezuelan military carried out its offensive. Sources also suggest that a small group of guerrillas was left behind to repel the attacks.

There are several atomized groups in the area, including the 10th and 45th former-FARC fronts. Some of these groups never demobilized [as part of the 2016 Colombian Peace Agreement], and others returned to arms and call themselves the “new FARC” or even the “Second Marquetalia.” There are now dissidents amongst the dissidents.

Apart from the nature of the armed groups, the truth is that these actions fuel misinformation. Tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have increased, affecting the civilian population and inviting “Manichean” readings (1).

Of course, Venezuela has the right and duty to protect its territory.

Márquez’s guerrillas [Second Marquetalia] cannot be equated to former FARC groups now running drug operations in Cauca, Colombia, for example. The same could be said of so-called dissidents, who are a disjointed list of battalions with different dimensions and purposes rather than a unified army under a single command. Many of them act more as drug trafficking groups where the means (funding) has now become the ends.

Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) is not linked to recent events but is in the territory. Its presence in Venezuela comes with another reading and it opposes the mafia actions of some of the dissident groups on the border.

Likewise, there are other decisive armed actors on the border: the two countries’ armies. Both consider the other to be the enemy.

The Colombian and Venezuelan perspectives

Sovereignty is an increasingly ignored concept in the region, and which in Colombia is relativized when it comes to the Venezuela issue.

Ignorance about Venezuela’s complex situation comes on top of the supposed “moral superiority” from Colombian elites (with their dirty hands). That “superiority” ignores the notion of sovereignty and backs a call for war.

If it boiled down to numbers (massacres, displacements of population, state crimes, human rights violations, disappearances, etc.), then there would be a stronger argument to take away Colombia’s sovereignty and intervene in its internal dynamics.

Meanwhile, Bogotá prepares to make further [military equipment] purchases and repairs of its warplanes. In this equation, recent events are just one link in a tense relationship that goes beyond the Apure deeds. At the same time, several US aircraft arrived in Colombia to provide logistical support to troops in combat. Is this a coincidence?

Venezuela faces a series of security risks. These risks have different levels: the presence of Colombian guerrilla armed groups; the actions of paramilitary organizations; possible tensions with Colombian troops; and potential (or real) military activities under the tutelage of the United States against the Nicolás Maduro government.

In Central America, the Contras [US-backed right-wing paramilitary groups 1979-90] were a successful experiment in Nicaragua. But that wasn’t a novelty. The strategy is relatively simple: create a focus of armed opposition that delegitimizes a government; commit acts of terrorism; recruit adherents and take stock of the response of the politicians. The extent to which some FARC dissidents would behave as a type of Contras in Venezuela is still to be seen.

The Venezuelan armed forces do not have the real capacity to repel a massive US attack. Chavistas should understand that war is not won by slogans, just as they should understand that an economic revival is not achieved through speeches.

Caracas must now reflect on the presence of Colombian armed groups in its territory. It should also reflect on potential corruption-fuelled collusions between sectors of its armed forces and these groups.

If Bogotá and Caracas were taking this seriously, they would understand Uslar Pietri’s [Venezuelan intellectual who lived from 1906-2001] call to address the problems “of the third country” (the border area) as an emergency. Equally, this emergency should force them to set up a diplomatic channel. Unfortunately, Colombian President Iván Duque’s blindness prevents this.

Government attention should not be reduced to deploying troops, but to the implementation of a social policy according to the needs of the region. Without this, informal and illegal economic circuits, including drug trafficking brokers, will remain determinants of the social dynamics.

International tensions

Any military action against Venezuela, whether limited or large scale, would almost certainly be launched from Colombian territory.

This is for two reasons: geographical advantages and political positions. Brazil would not participate because of its military’s refusal to get involved in something beyond its borders, as well as the large jungle separating the two countries.

When looking at Venezuela it is commonplace to describe the attacks on its sovereignty as “fifth-generation war.” This term, besides being useless, is inaccurate.

Thinking that wartime misinformation is a novelty that underscores a new generation of wars is the result of letting academics talk about what they do not know. Georges Clemenceau [French Prime Minister, 1906-09] said that “war is too serious a matter to leave to the military.” We could add that his analysis has consequences that are far too complex to leave in the hands of academics.

Border tension allowed Alberto Fujimori [Peruvian President, 1990-2020] to gain legitimacy; it served General Leopoldo Galtieri [Argentinian dictator, 1981-2] when he launched the Malvinas [Falklands] war; and it serves Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s [current Turkish President] authoritarian regime to stick its nose into Syria.

Imposing a “good vs bad” reading or resurrecting the Cold War is one of the key mistakes made when looking at the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, to give only two examples. With this logic, who fired first or from which side is secondary, just as Franz Ferdinand’s death was just the excuse to start World War I no matter who really killed him.

Obviously, forced displacement is a serious matter. However, taking it out of context only plays into the hands of those who look to create an apparent “great humanitarian crisis” in Venezuela, which would require an international presence and a well-known intervention.

It is worth clarifying that the word “humanitarian” in Venezuela is directly identified with so-called “humanitarian intervention,” which is eagerly requested by a sector of the Venezuelan opposition. However, humanitarian action (which is not what Chavismo thinks it is) is needed in Venezuela, and proof of this is that Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry asked for UN help in deactivating minefields: this would be a humanitarian action.

In this confusion of misinformation, both sides protect themselves from the other, and nationalism, prejudice, and violence become factors that, when combined, fuel the thirst for war.

The problem is not so much what really happens but what actions are taken with what happens: how nationalism is exacerbated, enemies created, “conspiracies” ratified, enemies identified, and political decisions thought out before facts are justified. It is naive to think that the Apure events are an “isolated deed” that has passed when all the pieces remain in place for the same libretto to be told again.

The two governments should follow the example of the border’s civil society that has sought to coordinate solidarity communication and actions on both sides of the border. It is urgent to know what is really going on and to help civilians without opening the door to “humanitarian” based manipulation. It is also urgent to create binational commissions to look at the border agenda in the long term and to respect civilians caught in the middle of hostilities. In short, governments should fulfill their duty.

PS: A blind narrative from some followers of the Venezuelan government causes more harm than good to its own cause. Using this logic, those who listen to communities complain about the armed forces’ alleged abuses end up calling them “narco-mercenaries.” Likewise, those who ask for humanitarian aid are accused of being “interventionists,” and those who call armed paramilitary groups “dissidents” are accused of being “imperialist agents.” Finally, under this logic, those of us who support the creation of binational spaces for dialogue end up with the “rightwing traitors” label. Political audacity is much needed here.

(1) Manichaeism was a major religion founded in the 3rd century AD by the Persian prophet Mani. It teaches an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.

Víctor de Currea-Lugo is a Colombian writer, analyst, photographer, doctor, and professor. His Ph.D. thesis examines the Peace Process between the Colombian Government and the FARC, and he has also written more than ten books and collaborated with Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper.

Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.