Relations with Latin America
Traditionally, Colombia's diplomatic and economic interests in the rest of Latin America were limited mainly to its neighboring rival, Venezuela. Colombia did not begin to identify with and pay more attention to other Latin American countries and to the English-speaking Caribbean until the mid-1970s. Although Colombia's internal violence in the 1950s soured its relations with its neighbors, the nation's regional relations became largely congenial and its trade ties prospered with the creation of the National Front in 1957.
As a result of Colombia's commitment to subregional economic integration during the 1960s, it began to perceive economic relations largely in Latin American or Andean terms and no longer simply followed United States leadership in regional and economic security relations. In 1969 Colombia signed the Cartagena Agreement establishing the Andean Group.
Within a few years after the signing of the agreement, however, Colombia encountered difficulties in its relations with the Amdeam Group nations as a result of domestic politics. By the mid-1970s, Colombian policy makers--concerned that the nation was giving up more than it was receiving in tariff reductions--began to lose enthusiasm for the Andean Group. They continued to favor subregional economic integration, however, and Colombia's economic relations with the rest of Latin America increased considerably after the creation of the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA) and the Andean Group. Like most other Latin American countries, Colombia joined the Latin American Economic System (Sistema Económica Latinoamericana--SELA), which was created in 1975 to promote regional cooperation on trade and other economic matters. On July 3, 1978, Colombia joined seven other Latin American countries in signing the Amazon Pact, a Brazilian initiative designed to coordinate the joint development of the Amazon Basin. Colombia also joined LAFTA's successor, the Latin American Integration Association (Asociación Latinoamericana de Integración--Aladi), created in 1980 to reduce trade barriers among Andean countries and coordinate economic policies.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Colombia also sought to develop a regional leadership role for itself by increasing its influence in the Caribbean. Colombia first joined the Caribbean Development Bank and then began expanding its trade with Caribbean countries. Nonetheless, Mexico and Venezuela remained Colombia's only significant trading partners in the Caribbean Basin region.
The Betancur administration placed a somewhat higher priority on relations with Central America. Colombia traditionally had very little experience in or contact with nearby Central America, but Colombians' awareness of the region increased considerably during the Betancur administration. In pursuit of Betancur's key foreign policy objective--peace in Central America--Colombia joined with Mexico, Venezuela, and Panama in January 1983 to form the Contadora Group. Betancur had proposed the Contadora initiative for three main reasons: he believed that it was consonant with Colombia's tradition of multilateral diplomacy, that Nicaragua had a right to self-determination, and that the United States should not intervene militarily and unilaterally in Nicaragua.
Betancur took an active role in other regional or interAmerican forums. Serving as mediator between Latin debtor nations and creditor countries, he hosted a key meeting of representatives from eleven Latin American countries at Cartagena in June 1984 to discuss ways to obtain softer repayment terms on the region's US$350 billion foreign debt. As president of a country with a relatively small and well-balanced debt, Betancur counseled moderation on debt issues, advising the governments to increase incentives for foreign investment to reduce dependence on foreign credits instead of forming a "debtors' cartel." Betancur remained within the mainstream of Latin American foreign policy in his approach to other issues of general regional concern. In addition to supporting Argentina in the South Atlantic War, he supported Bolivia's aspirations for territorial access to the Pacific Ocean and to Belize's guaranteed territorial integrity.
Betancur came under heavy criticism in Colombia for his higher profile in Western Hemisphere politics, particularly his mediation attempts in Central American political conflicts, at the expense of domestic issues. Betancur became less sympathetic toward Nicaragua as a result of its alleged involvement in supporting the M-19's Palace of Justice takeover in November 1985 and Managua's surprise renewal, in April 1986, of its territorial claim to Isla de San Andrés and Isla de Providencia. Although the islands had been under Colombian rule for generations, Nicaragua claimed in a press conference that the 1928 Barcenas-Esguerra Treaty recognizing Colombian sovereignty over the island territories was invalid because Nicaragua signed it at a time when United States troops occupied the country.
Barco had campaigned on a platform promising a lower profile for Colombia in the Contadora peace process and greater attention to Colombia's relations with its immediate neighbors. Accordingly, after taking office, Barco reduced Colombia's involvement in Contadora and Nonaligned Movement activities. He continued, however, to develop Colombia's bilateral relations in Latin America.
Although Colombia's relations with Venezuela have been more extensive than with any other state in the region, border disputes and territorial differences often caused those relations to be tense and acrimonious. During the Lleras Restrepo presidency in the late 1960s, Colombia attempted to negotiate contracts with foreign oil companies to do offshore exploratory drilling on the continental shelf of the Golfo de Venezuela, which may contain up to 10 billion barrels of petroleum. Caracas protested that the gulf was an inland waterway whose waters were "traditionally and historically Venezuelan." Both nations tacitly agreed in 1971 to suspend exploratory operations in the area until final agreement was reached. Nevertheless, the issue subsequently heated up again. At Venezuela's urging, talks to establish stricter boundary limits began in 1979. Several shooting incidents in the gulf in the 1981- 86 period led both countries to mobilize troops along the border and engage in a minor arms race. Despite a series of talks on the issue held between the Colombian and Venezuelan foreign ministers in 1986, little progress was made toward agreement. Barco hoped to submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, but the Venezuelan government of President Jaime Lusinchi opposed outside mediation.
The already tense relations between Colombia and Venezuela flared up again in mid-August 1987, when the Lusinchi government claimed that a Colombian warship had penetrated Venezuelan territorial waters. Both sides immediately increased their military presence in the border area, but Colombia was far outmatched by Venezuela. The Colombian defense ministry's request to Congress in September 1987 to quadruple the military budget to US$2.5 billion appeared to be related in part to the border dispute.
Additional border problems included the approximately 1 million illegal or undocumented Colombians who had entered Venezuela since the 1950s, cross-border guerrilla attacks by Colombian rebel groups, and drug trafficking. In 1988 Colombian peasant migrants outnumbered Venezuelans by fifteen to one in some border areas. Venezuelans generally had a low regard for the Colombian immigrants, whereas the Colombians resented the free-spending Venezuelans. These Colombians--seeking security, jobs, and higher wages--worked as domestics and in other menial positions shunned by Venezuelans. Although many Colombians remained in Venezuela, others crossed the border illegally to work seasonally, returning home every year with their earnings. This migration contributed to the large volume of illegal and contraband trade that flourished in the border regions.
Barco proposed a broad dialogue with Venezuela in August 1987 to encompass border issues such as contraband and the narcotics trade. In January 1988, Venezuela called for joint action with Colombia to control the growing activities of Colombian drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas along and inside Venezuela's western borders. The Venezuelan proposal was prompted in part by a surge of kidnappings of Venezuelan ranchers by Colombian guerrillas, who held their hostages for ransom on the Colombian side of the border. Venezuela was also concerned about Colombian drug traffickers who had begun developing Venezuela as an important transshipment point for cocaine en route to the United States or Western Europe.
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