Colombian President Gustavo Petro faces many challenges to his plan to achieve "Total Peace" with his country's armed groups, but one of the most difficult will be managing the relationship with neighboring Venezuela and its leader, Nicolás Maduro.
On New Year's Eve 2022, Petro announced a ceasefire with the country's five main criminal organizations, marking a significant step toward the peace talks that he vowed to deliver during his presidential campaign.
Hours later, the ceasefire was in doubt. The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), one of the country's largest armed groups and one of those included in the ceasefire announcement, stated that the government was lying.
"The ELN Dialogue Delegation has not discussed with the government of Gustavo Petro any proposal for a bilateral ceasefire, therefore there is still no agreement on this matter," said the ELN Central Command (COCE) in a communiqué published January 1, 2023.
Progress, it seemed, had stalled.
To resolve this impasse, Petro turned to a figure close to the guerrilla group. On January 7, Petro unexpectedly flew to Caracas.
Petro’s visit was presented as part of the efforts to reestablish relations between Colombia and Venezuela. But the main motive, according to media reports and sources consulted by InSight Crime, was for Petro to ask Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro for help in appeasing the ELN.
Petro’s visit to Miraflores Palace made Maduro's role in Colombia's peace talks clear: He is not simply a guarantor in the talks, he is fundamental to their success.
Not only is Maduro involved in Colombia’s peace talks with the ELN, but he also figures in talks with the Second Marquetalia and the Central General Staff (EMC), the two most important factions of the dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), known as the ex-FARC mafia.
His influence in the talks will be great. But whether Maduro’s involvement becomes a catalyst or an obstacle to “Total Peace” (Paz Total) will depend on the Colombian government.
"The Colombian government knows well that without the participation of the Venezuelan government, it is literally impossible for peace negotiations to move forward," Luis Fernando Trejos, an academic at the Universidad del Norte and a researcher and expert on Colombia's armed conflict, told InSight Crime.
No Maduro, No Total Peace
Since assuming the presidency in August 2022, one of Gustavo Petro's main political agenda items has been Total Peace, a policy that seeks to end the country’s long-running armed conflict through negotiations with different armed and criminal actors.
Within these groups, the ELN and the ex-FARC mafia are the main criminal threats to the government. If Petro wants to make significant progress in the peace talks with both, he will need the assistance of Venezuela and its president.
The presence of Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela has been growing and evolving since the arrival to power of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in the late 1990s. The ideological closeness and Chávez's public declarations of support for the FARC fostered a harmonious relationship and gave the guerrillas a home outside of Colombia.
This fraternalism was used by former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who turned to Chávez to shape the peace talks with the FARC guerrillas that concluded with the signing of a final agreement in 2016.
"Without the participation of then-President Chávez, there would not have been a positive negotiation with the guerrillas," said Trejos.
Petro is now looking to Maduro to play a similar role. But today, the relationship between the Venezuelan government and the guerrillas runs much deeper.
From the sharing of illicit rents to the coordination of joint military operations denounced by Human Rights Watch, the Colombian guerrillas, especially the ELN, are considered one of the main allies and strategic assets of the Venezuelan government today.
Indeed, so entrenched are Colombia’s guerrillas in Venezuela that they have ceased to be exclusively Colombian and instead are fully binational in nature. Yet their intentions on either side of the border contrast sharply: In Colombia, the guerillas’ stated objective is to overthrow the state, while in Venezuela their aim is to support it.
"Venezuela serves not only as a place to hide but [also] to strengthen and protect the Bolivarian Revolution project in Venezuela," said Charles Larratt-Smith, a scholar specializing in Colombia's armed conflict and guerrillas.
This relationship has fundamentally altered Venezuela's role in the peace talks.
"Beyond its role as a facilitator or guarantor, Venezuela's part in negotiations is unclear. But later on, its role will surely be strengthened due to the presence of the [Colombian] guerrillas in the country," Ronal Rodríguez, professor and researcher at the Observatory of Venezuela at the University of Rosario, told InSight Crime.
This collusion suggests Venezuela has a high level of communication with the ELN. The Venezuelan government may have the capacity to dissuade some of the ELN’s commanders from taking steps toward peace.
In addition, this relationship of mutual dependence offers guarantees to the ELN. With Maduro at the negotiating table, no decisions will be taken that compromise the well-being of the guerrillas.
But given the benefits Maduro receives from his alliances with the guerrillas, his role in Colombia's peace process may not be as virtuous as it seems.
Maduro’s Ulterior Motives for Peace in Colombia?
Beginning in 2014, a year after Maduro's rise to power, the Venezuelan state and prominent Chavista figures were subjected to multiple international sanctions and trade embargoes that deepened over the years and significantly worsened the regime's finances.
Venezuela also became a pariah state after a number of countries refused to recognize Maduro as president following questionable elections in 2018. An "interim government" made up of political opposition was created in response.
Although income from criminal businesses such as drug trafficking and illicit mining, among others, has helped keep the government's finances afloat, the lifting of these sanctions and the normalization of diplomatic and trade relations would help alleviate the country's stagnant economy and strengthen Maduro's domestic political position.
Consequently, according to academics, analysts, and politicians consulted by InSight Crime, Maduro's repeated messages of support for Total Peace hide an ulterior motive. Being a guarantor and facilitator of the peace process in Colombia could give him the international legitimacy needed to clean up his image.
"Privately, it [Maduro’s involvement in peace talks] is more of a cynical bid to buy time, to improve relations, to stimulate the national economy with the opening of the border and all that. And in diplomatic and political terms, it aims to put an end to [Venezuela’s] isolation,” said Larratt-Smith.
Additionally, Venezuela's support for Total Peace goes hand in hand with the interests of the administration of US President Joe Biden, which has demonstrated support for the Colombian government's peace efforts.
Maduro’s "gestures send a positive signal to the US government that it is no longer harboring terrorist organizations in its territory, but, on the contrary, that it is facilitating the end of the armed conflict on Colombian soil," Trejos said.
Rapprochement between Washington and Caracas, as well as the resumption of some oil agreements, offer new alternatives to Maduro. Re-establishing relations with the North American country may be the door to re-enter the international community that Venezuela needs.
Costly Consequences for Colombia?
As Maduro's role in the negotiations increases, Colombia's vulnerability grows. Maduro’s influence in peace talks may give him sway over their future direction.
"Colombia managed to leverage Venezuela to achieve the agreement with the FARC [in 2016]. Petro is theoretically doing the same in this case. The difference is that I don't know if Petro can so easily dissociate himself," said Rodríguez.
Additionally, Maduro may take advantage of the eagerness shown by the Colombian president to move forward with the Total Peace project. In his ambition to end the Colombian armed conflict during his four years in office, Petro could end up making concessions to Venezuela that may be counterproductive.
On the other hand, the instability of the Venezuelan regime may affect the negotiation table. The international discrediting of Venezuela caused by the high levels of corruption and the systematic violation of human rights in recent years could play against the interests of Total Peace.
Petro’s silence on Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, its human rights violations, and the fact that it is a refuge for the ELN may prove harmful. His hesitation could lead to the loss of key international supporters who are critical of Maduro's behavior.
Nevertheless, Petro has no choice but to play Maduro's game. As long as the guerrillas are protected in Venezuela there can be no peace in Colombia, and this gives the Venezuelan president enormous leverage over his Colombian counterpart.