Andres Oppenheimer

Colombia’s armed rebels are back, with Venezuela’s help. This could trigger regional conflict | Opinion

YouTube screen grab shows former FARC senior commander Ivan Marquez, left, and fugitive rebel, Jesus Santrich, announcing the resumption of armed revolt in Colombia.
YouTube screen grab shows former FARC senior commander Ivan Marquez, left, and fugitive rebel, Jesus Santrich, announcing the resumption of armed revolt in Colombia. Getty Images

Many see the announcement by a dissident group of Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) rebels that they will break a 3-year-old peace deal and resume armed struggle as a domestic problem. But, more likely, it will become a Colombia-Venezuela dispute — and perhaps escalate into a regional conflict.

Colombian President Ivan Duque already has pinned the blame on Venezuela. Hours after the FARC’s Aug. 29 announcement, he said that the leftist rebels are “a narco-terrorist criminal gang that counts on the safe harbor and support of (Venezuelan) dictator Nicolás Maduro.”

What’s more, the Colombian government said the 32-minute video in which the FARC rebels announced their decision to take up arms again had been taped in Venezuelan territory. Colombian officials say Maduro, with Cuba’s help, has decided to help re-arm Colombia’s rebels in an effort to destabilize that country.

“Venezuela is becoming South America’s Iran,” Francisco Santos, Colombia’s ambassador to Washington, told me. “Much like Iran uses Hezbollah to destabilize neighboring countries, Venezuela uses terrorist organizations to destabilize its neighbors.”

The dissident FARC group that decided to re-take arms is estimated to be about 2,000 strong, while another 13,000 former FARC guerrillas who have abandoned the armed fight under a 2016 peace accord are sticking to the agreement.

But the leaders of the FARC’s dissident group that broke the peace accord said they will seek to team up with the ELN, another leftist guerrilla group that the Colombian government says is even more closely tied to Venezuela. Colombian officials say that 47 percent of ELN rebels operate out of Venezuelan territory.

There several reasons why Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and, perhaps, even the United States may — each for their own reasons — may be, intentionally or not, heading toward a regional conflict.

Maduro is against the ropes as Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis continues to deteriorate. He may have decided to step up his support for Colombian guerrillas to divert attention from his country’s crisis and weaken his biggest enemy in the neighborhood.

The Venezuelan dictator has often publicly stated his sympathy for Colombia’s leftist guerrillas. In July, he reiterated that fugitive Colombian rebel leaders would be welcome in his country.

If Colombia-Venezuela tensions escalate, Maduro would present his country, and himself, as alleged victims of a Colombia-U.S. “aggression,” which he often has done. In his mind, that could help him stir nationalist passions at home and improve his dismal popularity ratings.

Colombia and Brazil, in turn, may be anxious to accelerate the end of Maduro’s regime through an internal military rebellion or outside pressure for free elections, because they can barely cope with the growing flood of Venezuelan refugees. More than 1.3 million Venezuelan exiles have already moved to Colombia, and an estimated 5,000 more are crossing the border every day.

The Trump administration, in turn, has recently downplayed its on-and-off assertions that, “All options are on the table” in Venezuela, which hinted at the possibility of a military intervention.

But as the November 2020 elections in the United States get closer, Trump desperately needs a foreign affairs success. His grandiose plans for peace with North Korea, a Middle East peace accord and other foreign-relations initiatives so far have failed to produce anything but photo opportunities.

Trump could be drawn to support Colombia in the event of a border clash with Venezuela, without putting troops on the ground. If Colombia put in troops and the United States helped get rid of Maduro with a naval blockade, for instance, Trump could brag that he had been instrumental in ousting the Venezuelan dictator.

Granted, this is all very speculative, and a U.S. intervention in Venezuela remains unlikely. But a resurgence of FARC-ELN violence in Colombia, backed by Venezuela, changes the situation. It no doubt will threaten to turn Colombia’s domestic problem into a regional one.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera