By Stephanie Lloyd
At a Mercosur summit on August 3rd in Argentina, member states applauded their success in finally making the trade organization into a full customs union, a process that has been heatedly debated since December 1994. Almost completely absent from the agenda, however, was the important matter of restoring diplomatic and economic normalcy between Colombia and Venezuela. Although neither country is currently a full member of Mercosur, their persistently stormy relationship has been of deep concern to almost all members. As a result, the lack of resolution for the Colombia-Venezuela dispute indicates the summit’s misguided priorities.
Chavez and Uribe were both conspicuously absent at the Mercosur meeting, and member states merely said that “a solution” to the Colombia-Venezuela tensions would soon be found and urged talks to this end. Perhaps Chavez and Uribe would not be absent if Mercosur members had pledged to discuss these two nations’ pressing difficulties. Although the Mercosur summit was generally a success in terms of economic progress and other trade issues, it seems to have put the Venezuela-Colombia tensions on the back burner. Mercosur should have prioritized the Caracas-Bogota spat as the primary focus rather than be so absorbed with the customs-union matter, which has been a point of debate for the organization for many years.
Although Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said that the conflict with Colombia falls under the purview of UNASUR (the Union of South American States) rather than Mercosur, this belief is not necessarily the case. UNASUR is ultimately meant to be a merger of Mercosur and the Andean Community of Nations. However, Mercosur cannot at this stage limit its focus to only economic issues since it has not wholly merged with UNASUR. The difference between Mercosur and UNASUR is that Mercosur was originally a Free Trade Agreement between several South American nations and UNASUR is supposed to eventually absorb Mercosur and continue to discuss economic issues and their political implications. Mercosur will not likely be fully integrated into UNASUR if it continues to ignore issues that are important for both organizations. Moreover, the Venezuela and Colombia dispute at heart is of an economic nature, since much of the conflict revolves around oil, a driving force behind economics throughout the world.
Mercosur member states urged for talks between Venezuela and Colombia to take place. Maduro praised progress made by UNASUR last week in convincing those nations to engage in more diplomatic dialogue. Unfortunately, one organization may not be enough to resolve such a multi-faceted issue. If Venezuela and Colombia were to reach not only a diplomatic agreement through UNASUR but also an economic arrangement through Mercosur, the issue would be much more likely to be resolved. Troop mobilization by Venezuela requires a complex solution that includes both politics and economics, meaning that both organizations should be involved because mobilization requires a solution on the economic and the political front. In an attempt to limit any overlap between the two organizations, however, Maduro is actually limiting the speed and efficiency of reconciliation.
The lack of meaningful discussion regarding Venezuela and Colombia at Mercosur could also be due to Colombia’s accusation against Venezuela that its neighbor did not abide by UNASUR’s declaration on July 30. The Venezuelan newspaper El Universal quoted Colombian Foreign Minister Jamie Bermúdez, as saying that “We agreed on a final declaration which had been virtually adopted by all [member countries], which included Colombia’s request to establish a mechanism for effective cooperation and monitoring of the alleged presence of guerrillas in Venezuela.” Bermúdez guessed that “Venezuela changed its mind at the last minute, when all the foreign ministers had agreed on an official position.” Mercosur could have reversed Venezuela’s decision to flout UNASUR’s declaration by urging the countries to attend the meeting and act as ombudsman between the two nations. Chavez reportedly skipped the summit due an attack of the flu and Uribe was preoccupied with the Venezuela crisis, which looked as though it could escalate to skirmishes. However, if Mercosur had agreed to discuss Venezuela and Colombia in more detail, perhaps with the cooperation of all member nations, some kind of agreement on the conflict could have come from the process.
In addition, Mercosur should have realized that Venezuela and Colombia have other important immigration issues to discuss, besides FARC’s migratory habits, and these fall comfortably within the organization’s mandate. According to El Universal, “there are about 4.5 million Colombian residents in Venezuela” and “more than 350 Colombians arrive in Venezuela day by day.” Mercosur could have discussed Colombian and Venezuelan immigration policies and given advice on how both nations could enforce laws that other Mercosur member nations have successfully implemented. Mercosur chose not to do this however, and it became clear that the organization’s treatment of the border security dispute was unduly shallow. In other words, Mercosur had exhibited misguided priorities: instead of focusing on the short-term resolution of a very provocative dispute, members spent their time on fully establishing a customs union, a development that in any event would have inevitably occurred.