On May 29, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met with Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles in Bogota. The meeting came as Capriles begins a Latin American tour to make his case that last April’s presidential election was fraudulent. This was the second time that Capriles met with Santos, the first being in October of last year.
Since the meeting, the Colombian government has come under the wrath of President Nicolas Maduro’s government. Statements by various Venezuelan officials have said that Santos has put a “time bomb” on bilateral relations, that Caracas will reevaluate its support for the peace talks between Bogota and the FARC, and going as far as implying that a coup d’état is being formed and that Bogota plans to poison Maduro. Santos has called the accusations “crazy,” stating that Colombia does not want instability in Venezuela. Similarly, Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Holguin has stated that it will not engage in “microphone diplomacy.”
Venezuela’s strong reaction comes as Capriles continues to challenge Maduro’s legitimacy, which together with the recent violence and strong polarization in the country has made it difficult for Maduro and his team to govern. The Venezuelan economy has also continued to deteriorate, having grown only .07 percent in the first quarter, with inflation rising to 6.1 percent in May, and the scarcity index reaching 21 percent–meaning that 21 out of 100 goods are not available.
The meeting with Santos undermines a primary source of support of the Venezuelan government’s legitimacy. While Venezuelans are divided, Latin American governments have all recognized Maduro’s victory. Although the reasons for this recognition differ–from strong ties between nations such as Bolivia to pragmatism as in Mexico- the region’s support for Caracas is a pillar of the government’s legitimacy. Without it, it is unlikely to see how Maduro can maintain control over the country. This explains the strong reaction to the Bogota meeting: by providing Capriles with a meeting, Santos has undermined the region’s united support for Maduro.
This reaction by the Maduro administration was also seen when Rafael Roncagliolo, the former Peruvian foreign minister, called on both the government and the opposition to put aside their differences and discuss a solution. Roncagliolo also called on the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) (currently presided over by Peru) to urge Maduro to promote talks with the opposition and rein the violent rhetoric. Mr. Roncagliolo also suggested that another UNASUR meeting should be held to discuss the Venezuelan situation. Instead of moderating, Maduro recalled Venezuela’s ambassador to Lima and called on Peru to “stop mingling on Venezuela’s internal affairs.” Within days, Roncagliolo resigned due to health reasons. Following the wrath against Santos, this week, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has postponed his meeting with Capriles. It is yet known whether other Latin American leaders will receive Capriles in their capitals.
The Economist discussed this behavior by Latin American governments in a recent article, ending by stating that:
The ostrich approach may not work for ever. For one thing, the Venezuelan opposition’s campaign across the region is putting presidents under pressure from their parliaments and civic groups to support democracy. Second, Venezuela’s political fragility and Mr Maduro’s weakness threaten instability which the region may be unable to ignore. Shutting the door in Mr Capriles’ face could prove a short-sighted policy, as well as a shameful one.