Mérida, August 18th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – The president of the Colombian Senate, Armando Benedetti, met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other top officials in Caracas on Monday. The meeting was the latest step forward in the renewal of bilateral relations following a three-week dispute that stoked fear of military aggression.
Following Monday’s meeting, Benedetti emphasized the “affection” with which he was treated during his visit to Venezuela and said the visit “generated trust, and this trust can make up for many things.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, who was present at the meeting along with Oil and Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez and National Assembly President Cilia Flores, said the group had a “great conversation” about “the new relations and complementary economic projects between our countries.”
The officials did not sign any accords, but they discussed the possibility of creating binational zones along their 1,375 mile border, passing a binational organic law, improving security cooperation, launching joint energy and infrastructure projects, and signing a free trade agreement. Also, Maduro announced that Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Holguin will visit Venezuela this Friday.
Venezuela severed ties with Colombia on July 22nd after the outgoing administration of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe claimed that Venezuela tolerates the presence of armed “terrorist” insurgents who allegedly have taken refuge in its territory. Chavez interpreted the accusations as a threat of military aggression from Colombia, a US ally that attacked an insurgent camp inside Ecuadoran territory in 2008 and signed a deal to allow the US to increase its military presence on seven Colombian bases in 2009.
Bilateral relations were renewed on August 10th following the inauguration of the new Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former defense minister.
On Monday, Benedetti said he hopes to “seek a way that these two brotherly countries can struggle against terrorism respecting each other’s sovereignty,” but added that discussion of the Colombian insurgents pertains “exclusively” to President Santos.
“Never in my country has it occurred to anyone that there would be a war between the two countries, first of all because we do not want it,” said Benedetti. “Security, sovereignty, and national defense must be simultaneously related to the issue of trade,” he said.
Benedetti also warned of people and organizations in both countries who oppose the renewal of relations and who “will do anything” to disrupt the process.
Likewise, Chavez warned of the “permanent danger” that the US might provoke armed conflicts in the border zone. He said he is optimistic about improving relations with Colombia, but that “those seven US military bases in Colombia are a true threat,” and that he and Santos have agreed to address the issue of the bases in private talks.
A Colombian constitutional court ruled on Tuesday that the October 2009 military deal with the US was not merely an agreement extended from previous bilateral agreements such as Plan Colombia (as the Uribe administration argued), but a new treaty in itself, which will require congressional approval before taking effect. The deal was distinct in that it granted legal immunity to US military personnel in Colombia, among other features, the court ruled.
While speculation abounds over why Uribe and Santos held such distinct positions toward Venezuela in recent weeks and whether the renewal of bilateral relations between Venezuela and Colombia will last, the two nations appear to have temporarily averted what many considered to be the risk of war.
Mending ties will also allow the two nations to reverse the economic damage caused by the ongoing tensions over the last two years, which have sidelined mutual efforts by the Chavez and Uribe administrations to build a transnational gas pipeline and launch other large-scale joint infrastructure projects.
Bilateral trade increased from $6.6 billion in 2007 to $7.3 billion in 2008, then dropped to $4.6 billion in 2009, and registered a 70% drop in the first quarter of 2010 compared to the first quarter of 2009, according to the Chamber of Colombia-Venezuela Economic Integration (CAVECOL).
Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) reported that Colombian exports to Venezuela fell by 68.7% in March 2010 compared to March 2009, and Venezuelan exports to Colombia fell by 52% in the first half of 2010 compared to the first half of 2009. Magdalena Pardo of the Colombian-Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce said this week that Venezuelan companies owe $800 million in payments that were delayed due to bilateral tensions over the last two years.
While trade has declined, Colombian migration to Venezuela, a decades-old phenomenon resulting largely from the dreadful impact of Colombia’s civil war, has accelerated. According to Juan Carlos Tanus, the president of the Association of Colombians in Venezuela, the average number of Colombians to enter Venezuela by land increased from 254 per day in 2008 to 301 per day in 2009 and 350 per day this year.
“No government agency has undertaken a study on the status of the immigrant population,” Tanus told the Venezuelan daily El Universal. He estimated the total number of Colombians in Venezuela to be 4.5 million, including those who have become citizens, legal residents, those with temporary visas, undocumented immigrants, and applicants for refugee status.