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Economic and political instability in Venezuela threatens Colombia’s fragile peace

In an exclusive interview with TheJournal.ie, Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo was keen to defend his government’s desire for modifications to The Special Jurisdiction for Peace tribunal (JEP).

Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo
Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo
Image: Amanda Coakley

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS was inspired by the Irish peace process.

When the former President of Colombia started negotiating a peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a left-wing guerrilla, in 2012, he drew influence from the Good Friday Agreement.

While living in London in the 1970s he was thrown to the ground after an IRA bomb detonated in a nearby dustbin. Santos was unscathed but his interest in peace
in Northern Ireland would be life-long.

Throughout the four-year negotiation in Colombia, the Irish played an advisory role. Former Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore was appointed EU Special Envoy. He wasn’t alone as other Irish politicians, trade unionists and human rights activists travelled between Belfast and Bogotá to share their insights.

Similar to the Good Friday Agreement, the Colombian peace deal of 2016 had its critics.

Santos’ opposition led by Álvaro Uribe said the agreement was too lenient on the leftist guerrillas and called for adjustments to be made.

His successor Iván Duque is now in government and wants to modify the deal.

In an exclusive interview with TheJournal.ie, Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo was keen to defend his government’s desire for modifications to The Special Jurisdiction for Peace tribunal (JEP).

The JEP is part of the transitional justice system agreed in the 2016 deal. Its purpose is to
investigate and try former military officials and rebels in order to deliver justice for victims.

Duque’s government believes the JEP runs the risk of being too lenient on rebel commanders accused of war crimes and on 10 March, the President announced a partial veto of a statutory law that governs it.

“Implementing the [peace] agreement that is what we are doing, but introducing some
modifications to it” Trujillo said, adding: “In this particular case, President Duque presented six objections to a draft law that has 159 articles. The purpose is not to weaken the JEP, but to strengthen it.”

Last week, Colombia’s lower house rejected President Duque’s suggested changes, 110-44.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, Trujillo said: “The President will respect the decision that the congress takes.”

Fragile peace

Economic and political instability in Venezuela is threatening Colombia’s fragile peace.
According to the United Nations, three million Venezuelans have left their homeland since 2015 and it’s estimated that 1.1 million of them have settled in Colombia.

This influx is challenging security forces and angering local communities who feel the government is paying more attention to migrants than to them.

After being asked repeatedly if the Venezuelan migrant crisis affects peace, Trujillo said: “I don’t speak specifically about peace because it has the connotation of the agreement that was signed by the previous government. That is why I tell you this is a challenge for Colombia in every sector – health, education, security, infrastructure, everything. It's a huge challenge for us.”

There is little doubt that the migrant crisis is a huge challenge for Colombia.

The Foreign Office believes that if the situation in Venezuela deteriorates the number of migrants could go up to 1.8 million.

A grave deterioration could bring that number to three million.

Colombia’s hopes for a resolution lie with Juan Guaidó, a 35-year-old industrial engineer who declared himself Interim President of Venezuela in January.

Since then thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets to show their support for Guaidó but embattled President Nicolás Maduro still has the backing of the country’s powerful military, Russia, Cuba and China.

Earlier this month, the United States – Colombia’s ally – tried to advance Guaidó’s diplomatic mission by calling for the United Nations to recognise him as Venezuela’s leader. Vice President Mike Pence’s suggestion was received with outrage from the Venezuelan Ambassador who said the suggestion was “a mind-boggling inhumane experiment in unconventional warfare”.

United Nations’ support for Guaidó is thought to be unlikely at present.

“Guaidó is not losing momentum,” says Trujillo. “On the contrary, the process is ongoing. This is an irreversible process. Be sure about that. A while ago nobody talked about the possibility of having an interim President in Venezuela. Now there is one. Nobody talked about the possibility of that interim President being recognised by more than fifty countries. Now Juan Guaidó is recognised by fifty countries.

Nobody talked about the possibility of the opposition being united. Now the opposition is united around the figure of Juan Guaidó. Dictatorships never fall from one day to the other. This is a process that gets stronger and stronger until such a thing happens. That is why we are working so hard to create those conditions.”

Military intervention in Venezuela is off the table according to Mr Trujillo: “Our position is we are acting out of a legal and political duty. That is the Colombian position and that will never change.”

This position is in stark contrast with the United States. In the border city of Cúcuta this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated President Trump’s stance on Venezuela: “We’ve made clear, all options are on the table, you watch the political and diplomatic noose tighten around Maduro’s neck” he said.

Trujillo sticks to the script and is cautious of introducing new ideas.

Irish-Colombian relations are “great!”, he says.

“We are closer because we opened embassies in Bogotá and in Ireland. The trade relationship is getting bigger. There is more investment because there is very close contact as far as the issue of peace is concerned.”

However, when asked his thoughts on Brexit he said: “I don’t want to go into Brexit. I am a Foreign Minister and I have to be very careful about such things.”  

Amanda Coakley reports from Bogotá, Colombia. This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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Amanda Coakley

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