Who’d have thought it? Less than a year ago the presidents of Venezuela and Colombia were practically at each other’s throats. With the inauguration of Juan Manuel Santos as Colombia’s new leader last August, many assumed things would get worse.
How wrong they were. The burgeoning “friendship” between him and Hugo Chávez, practically ideological opposites, just keeps on delivering surprises. Now, Santos is telling the world that the camps of the leftwing Colombian rebels, FARC, that they knew of in Venezuela are no longer there.
This marks a huge rhetorical reversal from his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe (with Santos as his defence minister), who just before leaving the presidency launched a full frontal assault on Chávez, accusing him of providing safe haven to the guerrillas.
Why the sudden change? Under Uribe, Colombia looked increasingly isolated from its neighbours (not just Venezuela), while moving ever closer to the US, a key ally both militarily and in terms of trade. But it is finally beginning to look like Colombia may get the free trade deal with the US that it has been angling for so long.
It was this closeness to the US that ended up pushing Chávez over the edge, declaring in 2009 that he would put diplomatic and commercial relations with Colombia in the “freezer” after Uribe made a deal allowing the US increased access to several military bases. But it is now that deal which seems to be in the “freezer”, with Santos realising the importance of restoring a working relationship with his neighbour.
Mending fences with Venezuela not only allows the resumption of bilateral trade, on which both countries depend heavily - especially the significant number of voters in border areas - but it also makes the cooperation against drug trafficking and general insecurity issues easier. Only yesterday, Venezuela deported to Colombia two suspected members of the rebel group ELN.
Indeed, so far have the tables turned, that Santos has promised to extradite one the world’s most wanted drug traffickers to Venezuela, instead of the US.
Santos’s shift shouldn’t be so surprising, though. He is simply a pragmatist defending the interests of the nation he was elected to serve.