Colombia’s New Right-Wing President Raises Risk of US-Led War With Venezuela

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA – As Colombia’s new president, Ivan Duque, took office Tuesday, widespread speculation swirled across the region that the right-wing former senator and 42-year-old protégé of former President Alvaro Uribe will usher in a new stage of confrontation between Bogota and the besieged government of neighboring Venezuela.

Bilateral relations between the two states plunged over the weekend following an apparent attempt to assassinate Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with a drone-borne improvised explosive device. Caracas quickly pinned the blame on right-wing elites in Miami, Venezuela, Washington, and Colombia – including figures in the outgoing Santos government.

Under President Juan Manuel Santos, Bogota simultaneously pursued an ostensible policy of non-confrontation toward Venezuela while also joining calls for a peaceful regime change in Caracas. The stance was widely mocked by hard-right politicians in Colombia, including figures from Duque’s far-right Democratic Center Party.

Twenty-four hours after the drone attack, a video was released showing Duque’s mentor Uribe telling a group of U.S. business figures, in English, that a military coup is needed to topple Maduro and pave the way to an orderly transition to new elections.

Watch |  Alvaro Uribe tells US business figures that a military coup is needed in Venezuela

The former president and hard-right oligarch said:

I have said this in public, I have said that the Venezuelan soldiers need to remove that government (of Nicolas Maduro), not to establish a military government, but to call for a rapid transition, with democratic and transparent elections … When I say that the United States should help promote that decision, it is in private, for us.”

Many believe that Uribe, whose relationship with Duque was crucial in boosting the latter figure to prominence, is likely to play the role of wizard-behind-the-curtain in the new administration.

Uribe is currently being investigated by the Colombian Supreme Court in a case involving the bribery of witnesses. The senator has also been linked to cases of drug trafficking and paramilitary death-squad activity meant to enrich himself and his close associates.

Last month, the Venezuelan president mocked Duque as a virtual nobody, and said that Uribe would dictate his former protégé’s policies through Twitter. Indeed on Tuesday, Radio Caracol reported that Duque had already sought his mentor’s help writing his inaugural address.

Given the weakness of the Venezuelan opposition, which saw its fortunes turn in the past year as massive protests fizzled out and internal divisions led to deep splits in anti-Chavista ranks, many expect the Uribe style of paramilitarism and mercenary violence to become a new method by which Venezuela’s opponents will pursue change.


High stakes of confrontation

Venezuela's Armed Forces

Venezuela’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Remigio Ceballos, speaks during military drills at Fort Tiuna, Caracas, Venezuela, Aug. 25, 2017. Ricardo Mazalan | AP

Yet some have expressed cautious optimism that, while Duque talked menacingly about Caracas during his campaign, he will have no choice but to tolerate the increasingly fraught relations with his Venezuelan counterpart.

The country currently hosts 820,000 Venezuelan migrants who have fled the dire conditions in Venezuela provoked by the U.S.-led economic war on Caracas, and Bogota likely won’t desire an exacerbation of the instability stoked by the border crisis.

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is leading the U.S. delegation at Duque’s swearing-in, will visit the Venezuelan border, where she is expected to convey the Trump administration’s bellicose line toward the Bolivarian republic.

Speaking to Financial Times, Bogota-based analyst Sergio Guzman commented:

I don’t think Duque will do anything on Venezuela immediately because, after last weekend, the animosity is quite high … Regionally, there is no appetite for any decisive action against Venezuela. Colombia might push to further isolate Venezuela diplomatically but any measures that Duque takes will fall short of confronting Maduro head-on.”


Colombia in the era of Trump: Another “Israel of Latin America”?

U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command talks with Colombian President-elect Ivan Duque during a meeting at the military headquarters in Doral, Fla., July 14. Photo | SOUTHCOM

U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd speaks with Colombian President-elect Ivan Duque at  a meeting in Doral, Fla., July 14. Photo | SOUTHCOM

Duque is likely to become President Donald Trump’s top partner in South America. Such a partnership would be a reprisal of the intimate relations Uribe enjoyed with then-U.S. President George W. Bush during the Colombian leader’s 2002-10 presidency. The period also saw a major influx of U.S. aid, including money and weapons, to Bogota under the auspices of the “war on drugs.”

It was also during this period, when Colombia redoubled its war on social movements and leftist insurgents, that late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called Colombia a “terrorist state” and proxy for Washington, memorably slamming the Uribe government as “the Israel of Latin America.”

Duque has enjoyed major support from Washington for his promises to review the landmark peace process with leftist guerrillas and his pledge to redouble the Colombian state’s often brutal anti-drug efforts, including the aerial fumigation of coca crops using dangerous herbicides like glyphosate, which has been linked to upticks in cancer rates among rural populations.

Speaking from Cochabamba on his way to Duque’s inauguration, Bolivian President Evo Morales addressed the dangers presented by the United States “empire” — a threat fleshed out by the attempted assassination of Maduro on Saturday.

Denouncing the U.S. stance of “permanent aggression” toward Venezuela and expressing solidarity with his Venezuelan counterpart, the Bolivian leader noted that “the left parties, the anti-imperialist parties, the anti-imperialist governments are threatened by the U.S. empire.”

Adding that Trump administration officials have sought to recruit regional governments to support such an intervention, Morales stressed:

When they can’t finish Maduro’s government through political [or] democratic [means] …  I feel and see that they want to end their lives, that’s the story of all the parties of the left, of all the governments of the left in Latin America.”

As the U.S. seeks to topple the elected government of Venezuela, few doubt that President Duque and the regional elites standing behind him will prove extremely loyal to their traditional masters in Washington.

Top Photo | U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), escorts Colombian President-elect Ivan Duque at the command’s headquarters in Doral, Fla., July 14. Photo | SOUTHCOM

Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.

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