The first casualty of war.

Colombia Does Venezuela's Dirty Work

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
Read More.
a | A

Diplomacy is a coded business, where every tonic syllable counts. So here's one for Latin American semioticians: How to parse Colombia's decision to hand over two young Venezuelan fugitive dissidents to the Bolivarian thought police?

One theory: To seal a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos again pandering to the autocrat next door?

It's no secret that Venezuela has long been in the corner of the Colombian insurgents, who have been waging a campaign of terror and mayhem for the last half-century, often with a wink and a nod from their Venezuelan patrons. That toxic bond has estranged Colombia and Venezuela for most of the previous decade, with the hawkish Alvaro Uribe pitted against the chief Andean tub-thumper, Hugo Chavez.

Since Santos was first elected in 2010, he has gone out of his way to end the Andean Cold War, infuriating Uribe, many Colombians, and the entire Venezuelan opposition besides. Exhibit A: his 2011 extradition of suspected Venezuelan drug-trafficker, Walid Makled , then in a Colombian jail. Not to the U.S., where Makled was wanted for a farrago of felonies, from running cocaine to abetting the FARC, but to Venezuela, where he has yet to stand trial.

Many pragmatists shrugged off such deference as the price of keeping Caracas from upending negotiations between Colombia and the FARC to end the Western Hemisphere's longest insurgency.

Two years on, peace is still elusive, but Santos has kept courting the Chavistas. Which circles us back to the Venezuelan fugitives. Gabriel Valles, aged 27, and Lorent Saleh, 26, aren't exactly hardened criminals, much less game-changers in the peace parley. "These are kids, not the rebel vanguard," said Diego Arria, a Venezuelan opposition leader.

Both had slipped over the border to evade the Venezuelan courts, where they face charges of troublemaking during anti-government street protests, including "inciting public disorder," spreading "false information," and a Bolivarian gem called "public uncertainty," which is Chavista-speak for anything their men in red want it to be.

That was four years ago. Since then, they'd been under court orders to report every few weeks to the police and were barred from traveling abroad. So effectively, their offense was skipping probation.

Not that anyone in Caracas's Palacio Miraflores much cared. Attorney Alfredo Romero, of the Venezuelan rights group Foro Penal, noted in his Twitter account that Venezuela had not even issued an arrest warrant when Colombia handed the two over to Venezuelan intelligence last week. More tellingly, perhaps, Saleh and Valles were reported to be close to former president Uribe, Santos's archenemy, adding a note of a domestic political clash to their surrender.

Whatever the motive, the handover steps on the honorable Latin American tradition -- burned into the American Convention on Human Rights -- of sheltering dissenters who have fled persecution or fear for their lives.

Adding to the "ignoble act," Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, told me, was the delivery of Saleh and Valles to Venezuela's "dangerous" intelligence police, SEBIN, "known by Colombian authorities for their close ties to Colombian narco-terrorists."

Colombia isn't the only country rolling over for the Chavistas. In 2012, fearing for his life, Bolivian Senator Roger Pinto Molina, an opponent of Bolivarian socialist President Evo Morales, fled to the Brazilian embassy in La Paz. President Dilma Rousseff granted him refugee status but, when Morales hollered, not safe conduct to Brazil. After 455 days in limbo, Pinto snuck into Brazil, where the authorities pressured him to keep quiet and give up his asylum claim, his attorney Fernando Tiburcio Pena told me.

Then last month, former Venezuelan ambassador Milos Alcalay, a critic of Maduro, was detained in Nicaragua, where he was to attend a meeting on liberty and democracy, and then packed off to Panama, before being sent back home. Detail: Nicaragua and Panama are Venezuela's closest allies in Central America.

Puzzlingly, Santos, an able leader with a statesman's vision, had shone precisely because he'd risen above the crab barrel of Latin diplomacy. Winning peace is a worthy pursuit, and may warrant sacrifices. But surely not the kind that involve throwing foreign dissidents under the bus.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net