Colombia, Venezuela presidents meet as ties keep improving

The presidents of Colombia and Venezuela have met for the first time in years, as the neighbouring countries continue to repair their relationship and push to deepen economic ties.

The talks in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, on Tuesday between Colombia’s new left-wing President Gustavo Petro and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro come just weeks after the two nations reopened key, shared border crossings.

Petro, who took office in August, had promised to reset Colombia’s ties to Venezuela, which were severed in 2019 due to political tensions and security issues along the border.

In a statement before Tuesday’s talks, Petro’s office said he and Maduro would discuss bilateral relations, reopening the border and reintegrating Venezuela into the inter-American human rights systems.

The meeting also comes as part of efforts to boost regional economies and protect the Amazon, it said.

Petro was met at Simon Bolivar International Airport by Vice-President Delcy Rodriguez and Foreign Minister Carlos Faria around 1:40pm local time (17:40 GMT) before leaving for the presidential palace to meet with Maduro.

“For six years, there has been a political vacuum between two neighbouring countries, Colombia and Venezuela,” Petro said at a Colombian military airport before leaving for Caracas.

“We of course have a lot to say to each other after all that time,” he said, adding that the meeting’s agenda was wide open.

Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from Bogota, said the talks are “very significant for both countries” and mark “the first time that a Colombian president [has] travelled to Venezuelan territory since 2016”.

Rampietti explained that Maduro is hoping to use the meeting to “show that he might not be that isolated after all in the region” while Petro made a clear demand for Venezuela to return to inter-American rights systems and courts.

“This is a way for Gustavo Petro to be seen not as somebody who is legitimising Maduro,” Rampietti said, “but he’s hoping to be seen as a mediator here – bringing Venezuela back into the international organisation of the American states.”

Colombia and Venezuela re-established full diplomatic relations in late August, sending ambassadors to each other’s capitals.

“Relations with Venezuela should never have been severed. We are brothers and an imaginary line cannot separate us,” Colombia’s new envoy, Armando Benedetti, said at that time.

Caracas broke off relations with Bogota in 2019 after Venezuelan opposition activists tried to send aid trucks from Colombia in a move that Maduro’s government said was a front for an attempted coup.

Former right-wing Colombian President Ivan Duque also accused Venezuela of backing rebel groups operating along the countries’ 2,200km (1,367-mile) shared border, which has seen increased violence in recent years.

In March, Human Rights Watch accused Venezuelan soldiers of conducting joint operations with Colombian rebels in Venezuela’s Apure state.

The reopening of border crossings in September was welcomed by residents on both sides of the frontier who said they hoped it would bring much-needed economic activity to the area.

Other observers said they were optimistic it also would create safer conditions for migrants and refugees crossing the border.

Venezuela has seen a mass exodus in recent years amid a socioeconomic and security crisis, and more than seven million Venezuelan refugees and migrants now live in other countries, including Colombia.

Meanwhile, Venezuela, along with Chile and Cuba, will be a guarantor for planned negotiations between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s largest remaining rebel group.

While Bogota reached a deal with left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels in 2016, the country has seen a surge in violence as FARC dissidents and other rebel groups battle for control of territory, especially in areas outside the state’s control.

Petro, a former rebel fighter himself, is pushing to end armed conflict in Colombia as part of a policy dubbed “total peace”.

The ELN has insisted that its central command has enough authority over fractured fighting units to negotiate a genuine peace with the government.

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