Petro and Maduro meet after friction over electoral disqualification of María Corina Machado

The presidents of Colombia and Venezuela presented a united front following a diplomatic row over the incapacitation of the most visible opposition candidate for the Venezuelan presidential election

Gustavo Petro and Nicolás Maduro in Caracas
Gustavo Petro and Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, in 2022.Pedro Rances Mattey (Europa Press)

“The friendship of the two peoples must be maintained, no matter what happens,” said Gustavo Petro in Caracas when he had not yet spent 100 days in office as the first leftist president of contemporary Colombia. “It is a reconciliation,” said Nicolás Maduro, his host on that afternoon of November 1, 2022, in reference to what was the first meeting between the presidents of two countries with deep connections following a break in diplomatic relations. Less than 18 months later, the two leaders are meeting for the sixth time, on this occasion to draw a line under a few weeks of estrangement marked by Petro, who described the disqualification of opposition candidate María Corina Machado from the Venezuelan presidential elections, scheduled for July, as an “anti-democratic coup.” The meeting was scheduled on a symbolic date, April 9, the anniversary of the assassination in Bogotá of Colombian liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, a politician who Maduro praised a year ago as a “symbol of the struggles for the dignity of the humble peoples.”

The rapprochement between Colombia and Venezuela — a process that has been forged through two previous trips to Caracas by Petro and several presidential meetings at summits — froze a few weeks ago due to the calls made from Bogotá, initially by the Colombian Minister for Foreign Affairs Luis Gilberto Murillo, to promote free, fair, and competitive elections in Venezuela. Colombia has been far from alone in the international community in raising its concerns, nor it is the only country on good terms with Venezuela to have done so. Brazil also spoke out after the reversal made by the Maduro government on the electoral commitments signed last year in Barbados. Not only has the Venezuelan government disqualified Machado, it has also prevented the registration of her designated substitute, academic Corina Yoris, and imprisoned leading members of her party, Vente Venezuela. Although Petro did not initially react to the disqualification, the latest maneuvers by the Maduro administration prompted his criticism, which was angrily responded to by the Venezuelan president signaling — without naming names — a “cowardly left.”

When Petro was elected, ambassadors were reappointed in both countries and a border that has witnessed the passage of several million Venezuelan migrants over the last decade was formally reopened. At the same time, Maduro also recovered relevance on the world stage after several years of diplomatic and economic isolation due to Venezuela’s authoritarian drift. The two presidents need each other. On the one hand, between 2022 and 2023, Petro attempted to lead the search for a solution to the Venezuelan conflict through efforts to resume the stalled talks between the Maduro government and the opposition Unitary Platform, which eventually resulted in the Barbados agreement. A year ago, Petro organized an international conference to discuss the problems derived from the prolonged Venezuelan crisis, which came to nothing and did not leave him in a very good light.

On the other hand, for Colombia, Venezuela’s involvement in negotiations with the ELN, the last remaining guerrilla organization in a country that has suffered decades of internal armed conflict, has been fundamental. The talks, which have been held at rotating venues outside Colombia and were initiated in Caracas, have produced concrete results, such as temporary ceasefires. However, they are advancing slowly and without producing widespread enthusiasm in a society that sees the conflict worsening amid a proliferation of armed groups and the ambitious and complicated policy of Petro to negotiate with all of them in parallel. This month, from April 12 to 22, the talks will resume in the Venezuelan capital.

The recent friction between Petro and Maduro over the elections in Venezuela has resulted in the economic issue being buried in the bilateral agenda. One of the main attractions and commitments of the reactivation of relations was trade, which peaked between the two countries in the 1990s. Although the opening of the border in September 2022 sparked the exchange of some $143 million over the following year, it is still far from the records set decades ago. Despite the disagreements, Colombia has made progress in the reopening of five of its consulates in Venezuela, which this year have begun to provide services to its nationals in the country.

The overcoming of the diplomatic impasse is evidenced not only by Tuesday’s visit, but also by the meeting of Foreign Ministers Murillo and Yván Gil on Monday in Cúcuta, the largest and most populated Colombian city on the border between the two countries. At the meeting, the Colombian minister announced that the Maduro government has proposed Colombia act as an “electoral observer” in the July elections. As of yet, there has been no definitive response from Petro’s government.

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