The Rehabilitation of Nicolàs Maduro
By Benjamin MacShane
Back in November last year, I was running late for an interview with Colombian fintech, Dale!. Sprinting into the lift I punched the button, the doors closed, we sped upwards, and hurrying out, tripping slightly on my way I found myself, not with the Dale! reception doors as I expected, but instead almost nose-to-nose with Nicolàs Maduro. Stepping back and looking properly around I saw just to Sr. Maduro’s left an equally large likeness of Hugo Chavez. It isn’t often you trip through a rabbit-hole and find yourself in a Venezuelan wonderland but here was an office under construction, a sign reading Emabajada de Venezuela newly hung up above dusty boxes littering the entrance. Evidently, the priority in ambassadorial interior design is first to ensure the dear leaders’ portraits are in the correct position.
The establishment of a small, makeshift Venezuelan embassy in Bogotà comes after the hurried closure of the much larger mansion in February 2019. Though still standing, the old embassy is in ruinous condition having been overrun by looters in the aftermath of its abrupt closure. In early 2019, Venezuela, l’enfant terrible of Latin American politics was in a parlous state.
While some may point to the success of Hugo Chavez in reducing poverty through social reform missions and the overall growth of Venezuela’s economy during his tenure, Nicolàs Maduro’s legacy will not be so favourable. Since 2013 Maduro’s Venezuela has lurched between political instability, economic crisis and, until recently, international isolation. Brought about by excess printing of the Venezuelan Bolivar, the economy was declared to be suffering from hyperinflation in 2016. During the election of 2018, hyperinflation stood at roughly 1,700,000% while GDP had shrunk by around 15%, an accumulative contraction of over 40% since Maduro took over in 2013. In the midst of an unravelling economy and social order, the 2018 election injected an atmosphere of farce to compound the tragedy. Maduro won with nearly 70% of the vote. His campaign was marred by accusations of vote tampering, intimidation, and electoral manipulation. Most opposition parties boycotted the process and, though figures are imprecise, many Venezuelans are thought to have abstained.
Protests continued as tensions mounted. The political showdown came to a head in January 2019 with, on the one side, Maduro and his supporters, and the other, a rump within the National Assembly with Juan Guaidó its Speaker invoking clauses of the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution to declare the election invalid and calling upon the international community for assistance. In 2019, support for either Maduro or Guaidó reflected modern geopolitical fault lines, arguably a continuation of a Cold War that never completely ended: the USA and its allies on one side, with Russia, its proxies in Europe, Syria, Iran, China, and North Korea recognizing the legitimacy of Maduro’s victory. Among NATO members, only Turkey came out in favour of Maduro, one moustachioed strongman siding for another. In Latin America, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia, with their own histories of Latin American strongman communism, sided with Maduro. The rest did not.
It was in this context, that Maduro ordered the closure and abandonment of the Embassy in Bogotá, a move that cemented Venezuela’s diplomatic isolation from its closest cultural neighbour. Venezuela shares a rich history with Colombia, from arguing the origin of the arepa, the ubiquitous Andean flat cornbread, to both once belonging to the supranational union of Gran Colombia, compromising of modern-day Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela. Yet Maduro’s geopolitical isolationism came to an abrupt halt last year following victory of Gustavo Petro in Colombia’s election.
Gustavo Petro cuts an enigmatic political figure. Indeed, it is hard to pin him neatly under one category. He was recognized as Colombia’s first leftist president by the international community, but depicted as a radical socialist and ex-guerrilla by Colombia’s right and construed as a lackey of American imperialism by those further on the left. Since his inauguration in August 2022 an analysis of his policies would place him more as a political realist, perhaps boringly as a pragmatic centrist. He oversees an uneasy coalition including traditional parts of the Liberal and Conservative parties who water down his more radical proposals.
On foreign policy for this article, Petro’s agenda has crystallized around climate action and the Venezuelan migrant issue. Tracking the number of migrants is never an exact science, particularly in with a high degree of informality in the Colombian economy, but it is thought that the Venezuelan diaspora amounts to around six million globally, with over a third, some two and half million making Colombia their new home. The reasons include Maduro’s mismanagement stated above, with the pandemic also contributing to an increase in the last three years. Though its economy is far from perfect, from the vantage point of Caracas, Colombia appears a haven of stability.
Crisis Group research dates the mass migrant exodus as beginning in earnest in 2017, a short time after Venezuela’s economy was pronounced as suffering from hyperinflation. With a mostly porous border stretching 2,200 kilometres across jungle and coastline, the journey from Venezuela to Colombia is dangerous but not insurmountable. However, as with most instances of migration, the new arrivals can fall into even a different sort of precarity - fresh recruits for paramilitary, guerrillas and narcotraffickers or, in Bogota’s tolerance area of Santa Fe, underregulated sex work.
Exploited on the one hand for their vulnerability and impoverishment, yet vilified as the cause for low wages, insecurity and public disorder on the other, Venezuelan migrants have become the newest and lowest social class. Petro made resolving these tensions a core tenet of his winning manifesto. Since his inauguration in August 2022, Petro has made rapprochement with Maduro a key arc of his foreign policy with the aim of stemming the flow of Venezuelan migration. Economic factors also play a part, Venezuela has sizeable oil resolves and reopening trade between Colombia and Venezuela would benefit both. On the first of November, 2022, the two leaders met, reopening relations for the first time in three years. On New Year’s Day this year the border was officially reopened.
This was the context explaining how I stumbled across the new Venezuelan embassy hastily being assembled in the posher part of Bogotà. Having maintained support from the US in particular, Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader who unsuccessfully tried to thwart Maduro’s dubious election victory in 2018/19, became the star of a party he was not invited to attend. With representatives gathering at a summit, La Conferencia Internacional sobre el Proceso Político de Venezuela, to broker new dialogue between Maduro’s party and Venezuelan opposition, Guaidó arrived in Colombia having been smuggled into the country without passing through a border post. Promising to hold a press conference, Guaidó presented Petro with a difficult diplomatic problem to solve. Once the darling of the international community keen to cast down Maduro and put an end to Chavism, Guaidó now represented a potential diplomatic powder keg set to explode. Guaidó is to Maduro what Navalny is to Putin, a singular political enemy, an opponent admired and applauded by many in the international community.
Yet the regional political winds have changed since 2019. Biden enjoys a cordial relationship with Petro, with Washington quietly endorsing the rapprochement between Bogota and Caracas. Petro’s move came at the midnight hour on Monday the 24th with Guaidó frogmarched by Colombian forces and ferreted by plane to Miami – the powder keg relocated, Maduro satisfied, and the immediate problem ostensibly solved. Guaidó’s next move is unclear but for now he now adds to the long list of Latin American exiles who have considered Miami only a temporary home.
With Guaidó out of frame, Petro put forward his proposal at the conference. In exchange for the gradual lifting of US sanctions, Maduro would re-join the International System of Human Rights and guarantee fresh elections in Venezuela. Coming in ahead of his speech calling for climate finance at COP28 in Cairo, this would be Petro’s biggest moment on the international stage that could spell a new phase in the regional balance of power should Venezuela normalise diplomatic ties with its other neighbours.
Maduro coming in from the cold, however, may serve to be an example of persistence and patience being the most useful virtue for other international strongmen around the world. Putin, Assad and others will be observing closely the rapprochement between Venezuela and its regional neighbours. After a decade in power and a presidency that has seen around two and half million refugees flee across its western border into Colombia, with 50% of those remaining in Venezuela living beneath the poverty line, Maduro is back on the international stage thanks to the largesse of Petro’s new government. With Petro orchestrating the surreptitious removal of Guaidó from Colombian territory, he has made it clear who he is betting on for Venezuela’s future. For now, Maduro-ism remains in power and only time will tell if Petro’s move will reap benefits both in Bogota and Caracas.
Benjamin MacShane is a British journalist based in Bogota.