As the Trump administration has turned the screws on Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro, it has had a staunch and eager ally in neighboring Colombia.
The South American nation has its own troubles (guerrillas, political assassinations, soaring coca production, and a stumbling peace deal), but it has good reason to worry about Venezuela.
Not only are Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia in record numbers, but Colombia says its hostile neighbor is providing a safe haven to guerrillas bent on destabilizing the Iván Duque administration in Bogotá.
“The threat of Venezuela — and the instability that Maduro wants to create in Colombia — are very clear,” Francisco Santos, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, told the Miami Herald. “It’s an existential issue for Colombia.”
Speaking from his office in Washington on a recent weekday, Santos, a longtime diplomat and former vice president, said one of his key roles is to keep Washington focused on Venezuela as a threat to the region. And he regularly leads U.S. delegations to the chaotic Venezuela-Colombia border, where tens of thousands of Venezuelans cross every day looking for food, medicine and a way out.
During the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month, Santos was part of the team circulating a classified report that purportedly details the connections between the Maduro government and Colombia’s two main guerrilla groups: the National Liberation Army (ELN) and factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that didn’t comply with a 2016 peace deal.
Santos said the dossier provides details about where the guerrillas are operating deep in Venezuelan territory “and a lot of evidence of how Maduro is using the ELN and using the FARC there.”
In particular, he said the Venezuelan government and the ELN have close ties, similar to how the Hezbollah terrorist organization works as a proxy for Iran.
“That dossier shows where [guerrilla] camps are, where the landing strips are in Venezuela,” he said. “It makes the ELN sort of the Hezbollah of the Western Hemisphere. … This is right here in the neighborhood.”
The accusations against Venezuela go back at least two decades, but Santos said this report comes amid the growing regional consensus that Maduro needs to step down.
Critics, including Maduro, have accused Colombia of overplaying its hand. A Colombian military official lost his job after it was revealed that some of the pictures used in the report purporting to be Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela were actually taken in Colombia.
But Santos said he planned to hold meetings with the U.S. Southern Command and military officials from Peru and Brazil to talk about the implications of the report and to “share intelligence that we can’t put forward in the dossier.”
Colombia is already on the front lines of Venezuela’s migratory crisis. In recent years, more than 4.3 million Venezuelans have left their country amid the collapsing economy and political strife, and more than 1.5 million are living in Colombia.
The country has responded by providing work permits to almost 600,000 Venezuelans and keeping its borders open.
“There is no other country in the world that is doing that,” Santos said. “It’s a huge example of solidarity, of liberal Western values, which is — I take the neighbor who is sick and dying of hunger. And I think that’s something that Colombia should be very proud of and that’s something that the world should look at with wonder and say, ‘We should help Colombia even more.’ ”
But the open-door policy comes with a price. Colombia’s unemployment rate is starting to creep back up and there’s growing frustration — particularly in overwhelmed border regions — with the government’s stance.
Asked how much longer it would be politically feasible for Colombia to maintain its open-arms policy, Santos said that was the “million-dollar question.”
“You look at the budget of health, education — the strain is huge,” he said. “We have been able to withstand it, but it’s getting to a tipping point, so I don’t know how much longer. But the problem is that we don’t have an alternative.”
Washington, Colombia and others say the only real alternative is for Maduro to step down. In order to push for that outcome, they’ve been backing the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress, Juan Guaidó.
While Guaidó has been actively challenging Maduro since January, Santos said this was not the time for the international community to lose faith in him.
“We need to have a strong Guaidó. Anything that debilitates him will be a huge problem,” Santos said.
Among the challenges to the young lawmaker is a lawsuit by holders of Venezuelan bonds that threatens to strip the Guaidó administration of its main foreign asset, U.S.-based Citgo.
Santos said the U.S. government needs to intervene to make sure Guaidó maintains control of the company.
“If the U.S. doesn’t make the right decision regarding [Citgo], it can destroy everything we have done up until now. It would be catastrophic,” he said. “Citgo is the crown jewel of the Guaidó government and anything you do against it would be a huge setback diplomatically and economically.”
Venezuela isn’t Colombia’s only problem.
Even as it has become a hot spot for tourists and investors, the country remains the world’s top producer of coca (the raw ingredient for cocaine) and it is still awash in troubling political violence despite the historic 2016 peace deal.
Colombia is holding municipal elections on Sunday that have been marred by violence. At least 22 candidates and pre-candidates have been murdered in the run-up to the race. Social leaders and demobilized guerrillas have also been the targets of assassinations. The violence has made many question the efficacy of the peace deal and Duque’s ability and willingness to implement it.
Santos said Duque is committed to the peace deal and says the lingering violence has other explanations.
“When you look at where those murders are happening, it’s right where the drug crops are,” he said. “The biggest enemy of peace is drug trafficking.”
Santos blames his cousin and former president, Juan Manuel Santos, for the spike in coca production over the last few years. But he said Duque, who took power in 2018, is making great strides and will eradicate at least 90,000 hectares of coca crops this year. “I’m confident that for the first time in seven years we will see a decline,” he said.
While Trump has chastised Colombia over its coca production, the nation is confident that it will remain in Washington’s good graces.
“We are strategic allies on the issue of drugs, on the issue of migration, the issue of Venezuela — we are pivotal,” Santos said. “We are the United States’ biggest ally. We are holding the fort for democracy down there.”