Latin America Markets

We need to use persuasion rather than military action in Venezuela, Colombia's president says

Key Points
  • Political turmoil in neighboring Venezuela has dominated Colombia's foreign policy concerns this year. Political stalemate appears to have set in for Venezuela, however, with Maduro hanging onto power.
  • Colombia is hosting 1.3 million refugees and migrants from Venezuela. 
Venezuelan army soldiers carrying RPG anti-tank rockets participate in a military parade to celebrate Venezuela's 206th anniversary of its Independence in Caracas on July 5, 2017.
AFP Contributor | AFP | Getty Images

Daily pressure should be exerted on Venezuela's military to defect from the President Nicolas Maduro regime rather than international military intervention, Colombia's president told CNBC Tuesday.

"For the weeks to come, and for the months to come, I actually believe that the best thing we can do in the international community is to put enough pressure, and make the big call to the Venezuelan military, that they should step on the right side of history and that means stepping side-to-side with President (Juan) Guaido and the (National) Assembly," President Ivan Duque told CNBC's Joumanna Bercetche in London on Tuesday.

"I think that's far more important than any military action that can come from abroad," Duque said.

A "daily call' had to be made to the Venezuela military to persuade them to defect from supporting Maduro, Duque suggested. Maduro is still in power despite an attempt to oust the controversial leader by opposition lawmaker Guaido earlier this year.

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Political turmoil in neighboring Venezuela has dominated Colombia's foreign policy concerns this year. Duque was one of the first leaders in the international community to recognize Guaido as acting president after the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared himself interim leader in January.

Political stalemate appears to have set in for Venezuela, however, with Maduro hanging onto power and still backed by the military and allies including Russia. The U.S. said it has not ruled out military action in Venezuela but there appears to be little appetite to initiate a potentially protracted intervention there.

"What we have said is that we have to combine all instruments to achieve the most important objective which is Maduro stepping out of power, so that's why I have been a promoter of the diplomatic blockade," Duque said.

Migration crisis

In the meantime, Colombia is under pressure from the sheer amount of Venezuelans fleeing the country. According to the UNHCR (the UN's refugee agency) and IOM (the International Organization for Migration), the number of refugees and migrants fleeing Venezuela has rocketed to 4 million people by mid-2019 with many seeking asylum in neighboring countries.

Colombia is now hosting 1.3 million Venezuelans, the UNHCR said in a report earlier in June, and almost the same amount of people are being hosted by Peru, Chile and Ecuador put together. Colombia's president said his country and its economy can cope with the arrivals.

Colombia president: Must call on Venezuela military to defect

"When we look at the way we have treated the worst migration crisis we have seen in Latin America's recent history, our policy is based on fraternity, and what we've done is to have an orderly management of that migration flow," he said.

"Because people that are coming from Venezuela are coming with diseases, they're coming with broken bones, they're dying of hunger and we have tried to accommodate our policies to attend those people. We have also tried to allow them to participate in the labor force in Colombia in an orderly way."

"The reason we have done this is that we know that those people are searching for opportunities and in Colombia, the policies we have adopted is to prevent that they can crowd out Colombian jobs," he said. "The way we have done this is that nobody can hire a Venezuelan worker below the standards we have in Colombia."

People queue to cross the Simon Bolivar international bridge from San Antonio del Tachira in Venezuela to Cucuta, in Colombia, to buy goods due to supplies shortage in their country, on June 8, 2019.

Fitch ratings agency has warned that migratory flows from Venezuela could pressure public finances in Colombia and attempts to reduce the country's budget deficit, but Duque denied that, saying that during his 10 months in office, his administration has "begun a sound fiscal policy that is aimed at reducing the fiscal deficit."

"Actually, by the end of this year, we are going to achieve a primary surplus for the first time in eight years. We're going to be something close to 2.4% of GDP in (terms of the budget) deficit which is one of the lowest (levels) in the last five years so I think it's important to put it in context," he said.

Duque became president of Colombia in August 2018 after standing as a candidate for the Democratic Center, a right-leaning conservative party. Elected at the age of 42, he is one of the country's youngest presidents in modern history.

Duque has been accused of having little political experience as he studied law and spent 12 years of his career working at the Inter-America Development Bank among other advisory roles. He became a senator in 2014, however, and was in that role before running for president. He is widely seen as the protege of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe who founded the Democratic Center party.

On his election, Duque called for unity and promised to fight corruption and cocaine production. He also pledged to modify and toughen up the terms of a fragile and controversial 2016 peace deal overseen by former president Juan Manuel Santos with the left-wing guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.