The tour books will tell you that Cartagena de Indias is the jewel of the Caribbean. But for Juan Manuel Santos, it might as well have been quicksand. The Colombian president, re-elected June 15, called on the colonial resort town on Friday for a one-on-one with his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolás Maduro.
That took some nerve. With the Colombian economy slowing, his ratings sagging and faith flagging in the drawn-out peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Santos badly needed a public-relations bump. Playing host to the fumbling leader of the crisis-addled Bolivarian Republic hardly helped.
“Maduro comes to talk of peace in Colombia, but there (in Venezuela) he promotes murder, harbors kidnappers, protects the FARC and persecutes (opposition leaders) Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado,” tweeted Alvaro Uribe, Santos’ predecessor and now archrival.
Maduro, for his part, had everything to gain. The Venezuelan national economy is a shambles, palace rivals lurk and Maduro’s international standing reads like a file from Interpol. Last week, Washington slapped travel restrictions on an unspecified number of Venezuelan higher-ups accused of human rights abuses. So a bit of face time with one of Latin America’s most heralded emerging leaders was something of a diplomatic coup.
Yet Santos is nothing if not a gambler. First elected four years ago, the Colombian leader’s initial foreign policy gesture was to reach out to Hugo Chávez, which went down in Bogota like a pipe bomb. For years, Chávez and Uribe had been blood enemies, with Uribe blaming the Venezuelan strongman for coddling the FARC and winking at drug trafficking. The row blew up into a bilateral trade war.
So by swapping the bully pulpit for a neighborly abrazo, Santos basically declared war on his political godfather. The gamble paid off. Santos managed to normalize trade and avoid a cold war with Venezuela and its prickly allies, Bolivia and Ecuador, that threatened to isolate Colombia in its own continent.
Then Santos announced a new round of peace talks with the FARC in 2012, in Havana, with Venezuela as a sponsor. As Michael Shifter, president of InterAmerican Dialogue, a Washington think tank, put it: “No other government has the same influence over the Colombian insurgents as Venezuela.”
Had, that is. Not long ago, the FARC were open admirers of Chávez’s experiment in 21st-century socialism, and El Comandante returned the favor, surrounding himself with aides with a soft spot for men in bandoleers. Exhibit A was Hugo Carvajal, the former head of Venezuelan military intelligence, who was arrested late last month in Aruba and accused of having ties to both Colombia’s guerrillas and drug thugs. Sprung on a diplomatic nicety — having been named Venezuelan consul to Aruba in January — Carvajal escaped extradition to the United States, and won a hero’s welcome back in Caracas.
Maduro inherited the Chavista rogues’ gallery but none of the caudillo’s political cachet, so dealing Santos a weaker hand in Havana. That left the Andean odd couple in Cartagena with the less glamorous agenda of how to manage Venezuela’s gathering economic chaos.
Populist price freezes and subsidies (gasoline costs pennies per gallon), plus the surging black-market dollar (trading at 10 times the official rate), have gutted Venezuela’s coffers and emptied its supermarkets, while turning the 2,000 kilometer border with Colombia into a haven for pirates and smugglers. To contain the damage, the two heads of state agreed in Cartagena to beefed up border patrols and a more realistic bolivar-for-peso exchange rate.
But for Santos the real prize is peace. And there the prospects are hardly bright. In recent weeks, insurgents have blown up power lines, sabotaged rural water supplies, dumped crude oil into the Putamayo river, and staged random attacks, one of which killed a 2-year-old girl. Some of the worst attacks have been staged by the ELN, a minor outlaw band that Santos had promised to bring to the peace table.
This is miserable news for the Colombian leader, who won re-election on the promise to end the half-century civil conflict that once threatened to bring Colombia to its knees. With peace still distant, now Santos is the one struggling to keep his feet.
Mac Margolis is Brazil bureau chief for Vocativ.
© 2014, Bloomberg News