Colombia – Venezuela Maritime Border Dispute
Colombia’s decades old maritime border dispute with Venezuela has reemerged as a source of conflict between the two countries. On May 26th, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro unilaterally decreed maritime borders for military operations, including an area in the Gulf of Venezuela that both countries claim sovereignty over.
Maduro’s decision to reignite this controversy is likely a diversionary tactic to distract from Venezuela’s faltering economy and Maduro’s low approval numbers. With the election of the National Assembly finally set for December 8th, Maduro may be also hoping for a “rally ’round the flag effect” in which an interstate conflict is used to increase popular nationalism and support for the regime in power.
It is unlikely that this conflict will go beyond words. The only action that would be likely to provoke a militarized response from Colombia would be the actual presence of a Venezuela naval vessel in the disputed waters. The last time something similar happened–in 1987 the Colombian warship, Caldas, crossed into these waters–the two sides nearly went to war. Presently, Colombia has a significant military advantage, therefore, it is unlikely Venezuela would risk a military engagement. Yet, it should also be noted with caution that in 1987, despite the fact that Venezuela had the stronger military, Colombia was willing to incite Venezuela in a failed bid to come to a final resolution on the border delimitation.
Of particular interest to me, is the centrality of the maritime border dispute to Colombia – Venezuela relations in the 1980s, only to have it disappear as an issue of contention in the 1990s. Once trade became the main agenda item between the two countries the border problem lost its importance. As a former deputy defense minister explained, it was clear that there was more to gain from economic cooperation than fighting over potential oil reserves in the disputed waters. Today, however, Colombia and Venezuela have returned to a period of low trade, and Venezuela’s economy is faltering much as it was in the 1980s. Therefore it is notable that Maduro has chosen now to provoke conflict over maritime borders. For Colombia and Venezuela, at least, there is a strong relationship between trade and peace.