BOGOTA, Colombia—Tensions have escalated between Colombia and neighboring Venezuela following the invocation of a regional defense pact by the United States and other Latin American allies that would support Colombia in the case of a regional conflict.
The United States and other signatories triggered the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR) on Sept. 11 after a number of bellicose exchanges between Venezuela and Colombia, including an announcement from Venezuelan regime leader Nicolás Maduro that he would be sending 150,000 troops to the Colombian border.
Analysts say the diplomatic strains are “serious” and activating the pact marks the highest level of escalation between the feuding neighbors in more than 10 years.
The United States invoked the alliance at an assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) along with 10 other countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, and the Dominican Republic.
Juan Guaidó, the head of the Venezuelan congress who is now recognized by over 50 other countries as leader of Venezuela, requested the treaty’s enactment, which commits the countries of the Western Hemisphere to respond to military aggression against any one of them.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement about the pact, “Recent bellicose moves by the Venezuelan military to deploy along the border with Colombia, as well as the presence of illegal armed groups and terrorist organizations in Venezuelan territory, demonstrate that Nicolas Maduro not only poses a threat to the Venezuelan people, his actions threaten the peace and security of Venezuela’s neighbors.”
Remigio Ceballos, strategic operational commander of the Venezuelan armed forces, has defended large-scale military exercises at the border, labeling them matters of “security, exploration, and the interception of any invasion of Venezuelan territory,” according to Reuters.
Maduro has increasingly sounded the alarm of foreign aggression from the United States and its allies against the socialist country since it supported a move from Guaidó’s opposition to deliver aid to Venezuela on Feb. 23, which the embattled leader deemed a pretext for invasion.
Maduro’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, blasted the enactment of the pact and stated his country is “ready” to defend itself if necessary.
“We will let no one trample sacred Venezuelan soil, we will respond and hope that never happens,” Arreaza said at a news conference in Geneva after a meeting with U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Sep. 13, according to AFP.
“We will never attack a brother country … under any circumstances, except to defend our people and territorial integrity.”
The U.S. ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo, played down the likelihood of conflict resulting from the pact, however. “The purpose of the TIAR is not to invoke military force; it is to seek a legal framework,” he told reporters ahead of the summit.
Relations between Colombia and Venezuela deteriorated rapidly after Maduro’s contentious predecessor Hugo Chavez kick-started the country’s “Bolivarian revolution” in 2002.
In 2007, a diplomatic crisis was triggered by Chavez negotiating directly with Colombian guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), instead of via an intermediary.
FARC demobilized in 2016 following a peace accord with the Colombian government, but guerrilla movements continue to jeopardize relations between the two countries.
Colombian President Iván Duque has consistently condemned Venezuela for offering a safe haven for Colombian guerrillas groups, which are expanding deeper than ever into the country and profiting lucratively from the absence of law and order since the country descended into economic and political crisis. Four million people have fled the country, according to the U.N., owing to a humanitarian crisis caused by widespread shortages and rampant hyperinflation.
Following the leak of documents—allegedly originating from Venezuelan intelligence—by a Colombian magazine on Sept. 9, Colombia now accuses Venezuela of not only tolerating the armed groups, but supporting them by providing training and arms.
The Venezuelan government hastily rejected the allegations, labeling the documents forgeries.
Guerrilla groups that disregard borders will likely remain an obstacle to cooling tensions, particularly with the release of a video on Aug. 29 by a number of former FARC leaders who announced they would return to war, blaming the government for not upholding its commitments to Colombia’s peace agreement. The Colombian government says the video was filmed in Venezuela.
“The tensions are indeed serious, and invocation of the Rio Pact/TIAR is certainly a sign that armed conflict is more possible now than it has been at any time since probably 2007 or before,” said John Polga-Hecimovich, professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Conflict, although “unlikely,” would be a “nightmare scenario” as it would not only mean conventional warfare, but also low-intensity guerrilla warfare across the two territories, he added.