We weep for you, Venezuela

BOGOTA • Until recently, Venezuela - the birthplace of the "Liberator" Simon Bolivar - was a free and rather wealthy country, boasting the world's largest proven oil reserves and a marvellous people. It attracted millions of Colombian migrants seeking to escape the violence of the war against the guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). Today, those roles are being reversed. Just as Colombia's 50-year war against the Farc is ending, Venezuela is collapsing economically, socially and politically.

Colombia is the country with the most at stake in the crisis afflicting our neighbour and sister republic. Indeed, our countries are joined by every possible link: history, culture, economics and geography, with over 2,000km of shared border.

We in Colombia always hope for Venezuela to prosper. That is why we - along with many other states and world leaders, including the Vatican and Pope Francis himself - are doing everything possible to encourage Venezuela's government, led by President Nicolas Maduro, and the opposition to reach an honourable solution to the crisis.

That crisis is rooted in the ideas of the late Hugo Chavez, who became Venezuela's president in 1999. At the time of his election, Mr Chavez enjoyed strong support, including from much of the business and commercial sector, and little opposition from anyone. But I had my doubts about his so-called "Bolivarian Revolution" - and I expressed them. Indeed, as a journalist at the time, I became one of Mr Chavez's toughest Colombian critics.

When I was elected President of Colombia in 2010, however, I shifted my approach. Taking the reins of a nation, much like having your first child, intensifies one's sense of responsibility. It was in my country's best interest to improve relations with our neighbours (we did not have diplomatic or commercial relations with Ecuador, either, at the time). Otherwise, we could never achieve the great dream of the Colombian people: peace with the Farc, Latin America's oldest and largest guerilla army.

Restoring relations with Venezuela did not mean that Mr Chavez and I had to agree with each other's perspectives; that would have been impossible.

We simply had to respect our differences while doing what was best for our people. And thanks to a sense of shared history and purpose, not to mention a little humour, we were able to do just that, with our personal relations gradually shifting from antagonistic to cordial.

An opposition activist taking part in a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, last Saturday. Tensions that have been flaring up for the past four months have left nearly 130 people killed in clashes between protesters and security forces. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When US President Ronald Reagan met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time to discuss reducing their nuclear arsenals, he was blunt. He was not going to become a communist, and he did not expect Mr Gorbachev to embrace capitalism. Nonetheless, Mr Reagan concluded that they should work together for a higher purpose: to protect the world from a nuclear disaster. And that is precisely what they did.

When I first met Mr Chavez, I suggested a similar approach.

I was not going to become a Bolivarian revolutionary, and he was not likely to become a liberal democrat. But we, too, had a higher purpose: to work towards peace in Colombia, thereby bringing benefits to the whole region. And that is precisely what we did.

It helped that Mr Chavez had a great sense of humour. We constantly kidded each other about our differences. I told him his Bolivarian Revolution would fail and make Bolivar look bad. He told me that Santander, the other great Latin American independence hero, was a neoliberal oligarch, and so was I.

But, like Mr Reagan and Mr Gorbachev, we decided not to criticise each other's preferred models - in our case, 21st-century socialism versus the Third Way - and, instead, to let history deliver its verdict. With this mutual understanding, we remained cordial until Mr Chavez's death in 2013.

Now, history has finally spoken, and the verdict is conclusive. Colombia has grown well above the Latin American average in recent years, and inflation stands at less than 4 per cent. Moreover, Colombia has become an increasingly attractive investment destination, as it has made great strides in poverty reduction, job creation, infrastructure development and education reform.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's economy has contracted by nearly 40 per cent under the weight of large debts and the world's highest inflation rate. Some 82 per cent of Venezuelans are now impoverished. There is a chronic scarcity of foreign currency, medicines and food. Malnourishment is rampant. The maternal mortality rate in hospitals reportedly increased fivefold last year, while the infant mortality rate has increased a hundredfold. The temptation to migrate elsewhere in search of a better life is growing.

Mr Maduro, Mr Chavez's handpicked successor, has blamed Colombia for Venezuela's economic disaster.

When I mentioned that I had warned Mr Chavez seven years ago that his economic programme would fail, Mr Maduro was offended. Yet that failure could not be more obvious.

Worse even than this economic failure, however, is Venezuela's political crisis. In just a few years, the country's very democracy has been destroyed. Corruption has consumed the regime, and Venezuelans have been stripped of their basic human rights.

Until Mr Chavez's death, democratic forms were maintained. At first, the same could be said for Mr Maduro who, at least for a while, grudgingly recognised the opposition's legislative majority after the 2015 elections. But then blow after blow was dealt to Venezuela's democratic institutions - a process that culminated in last month's decision to form an illegitimate constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution so as to entrench Mr Maduro's regime.

Colombia has called for negotiations to determine a fair and mutually acceptable solution to the grave disputes between Venezuela's government and the opposition. Such a solution must respect Venezuela's democracy and restore peace.

The recent deterioration of Venezuela's democracy has sparked increasingly harsh criticism.

Mr Maduro calls me a traitor because Colombia opposes the proliferating violations of human and democratic rights in his country. Perhaps he thought that, by helping us in the peace process with the Farc, he had secured a blind ally - one who is willing to look the other way and be an accessory to his high-handed methods.

But the realpolitik of international relations does not extend that far.

I will always be grateful for Mr Chavez's and Mr Maduro's contributions to my country's peace. But I can never acquiesce to the suppression of freedom and the violation of citizens' rights anywhere.

On the contrary, in the face of dictatorship, I have an obligation to raise my voice even louder.

And I am not alone. Those countries in Latin America and beyond that are committed to defending peace and freedom must continue to urge, with increasing firmness, the quick and peaceful re-establishment of democracy in the great country of Venezuela.

A new dictatorship cannot be allowed to perpetuate itself in the middle of Latin America, a continent that so recently achieved long-awaited peace.

In the meantime, we weep for you, Venezuela.


  • The writer is President of Colombia and the winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2017, with the headline 'We weep for you, Venezuela'. Print Edition | Subscribe