The economic crisis in Venezuela stopped being a domestic Venezuelan problem long ago, and the region is coping accordingly. Last week, Colombia declined to sign a declaration that ruled out the use of force to address the crisis. The declaration was agreed to by 11 of 14 members of the Lima Group, an organization formed in 2017 to address the crisis. (Canada and Guyana also refused to sign the declaration.) Bogota’s abstention created an uproar in the international community and fueled rumors that a military intervention in Venezuela was in the works. But that debate overshadowed a more important development of which Colombia’s refusal to eliminate the possibility of a military solution was merely one indicator: Countries on the continent are increasingly breaking ranks with their South American neighbors and adopting a more pragmatic and self-interested approach to regional relations.
It’s important, however, to first clarify that there is no evidence to suggest that the U.S., or anyone else for that matter, is preparing for military intervention in Venezuela. Earlier this month, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its support for diplomatic and political solutions to the crisis. And when Venezuelan troops crossed into Colombian territory on Sept. 13, allegedly to dismantle a drug facility, Colombia’s response was not to launch military action but to file a formal letter of protest. In fact, Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo was in Europe last week seeking aid from nongovernmental organizations to help Colombia and neighboring countries cope with the migrant wave that has resulted from the crisis.
In addition, there have been no major troop movements or irregular exercises in the region. Newly elected Colombian President Ivan Duque has said that Colombia does not support unilateral intervention in Venezuela. And despite its condemnation of the administration in Caracas, Washington has little appetite for yet another military intervention abroad and all the rebuilding costs that would come along with it. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the Venezuelan crisis is not a military matter and suggested Brazil and Colombia should take the lead on handling the situation.
Yet South American countries can’t agree on how exactly they will deal with Caracas. This stands in stark contrast to a history of cooperation among them, at least when it came to foreign affairs. After the U.S. became the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, South American countries could advance their interests only by banding together and joining institutions that promoted integration. Only together could they gain enough collective bargaining power to face down a country as mighty as the United States, or so the logic went. The strategy generally worked because they shared a common interest in accessing markets and resisting foreign interference in the region.
On the economic front, this has resulted in a hodgepodge of customs and trade unions, including groups like Mercosur, the Andean Community and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (or ALBA) that have either become defunct or failed to reach their full potential. (The budding Pacific Alliance may prove to be an exception given its narrow focus on trade.) But when conditions in Venezuela deteriorated, these countries became more focused on protecting their domestic interests. Mercosur members found it increasingly difficult to do business with Venezuela, and foreign companies were no longer getting paid for their goods and services. Members wanted to distance themselves from Venezuela as the crisis escalated, so they expelled the country from the bloc last year, citing Caracas’ failure to comply with democratic requirements. More recently, Ecuador withdrew from ALBA because of human rights violations in Venezuela, the bloc’s de facto leader. (The real reason for its departure, however, is its desire to revamp its image internationally. Quito is in the process of reforming its economy, particularly its oil industry, after years of state control. The government has tried to renegotiate oil contracts to ensure more equitable terms and sell stakes in state-owned oil projects. Remaining in ALBA may make investors question whether the country is serious about reforming its economy.)
On the security front, South American countries have faced challenges somewhat unique to the region – domination by a foreign power, government overthrows and, most recently, organized crime and drug-related terrorist groups. These countries have formed multilateral organizations like the Union of South American Nations (or UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which are meant to block foreign interference in the region and defend the legitimacy of existing governments.
The Venezuelan crisis has challenged South America’s compulsion toward integration in two ways. First, it introduced a new type of threat to South American nations: interstate war. The continent’s geography has discouraged this kind of conflict in the past. South American countries haven’t experienced full-fledged interstate warfare since the end of the Chaco War in 1935, some minor border skirmishes notwithstanding. But the Venezuelan crisis is transcending borders, creating enormous economic, political and social problems for other nations in the region.
Second, it is forcing these countries to rethink how they evaluate the legitimacy of governments in South America. Some have questioned President Nicolas Maduro’s ability to lead his country. Prior to this crisis, countries in South America generally believed that any leader who was not democratically elected should not be officially recognized and that they should stay out of the domestic political affairs of other countries in the region. The issue of intervention was also raised during political crises in Ecuador, Paraguay and Brazil, though no one wanted to face it head-on. But the situation in Venezuela is nearly impossible to ignore. Some have opted to protest Caracas’ handling of the crisis by withdrawing from regional organizations. Colombia announced in August that it would leave UNASUR, while Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Paraguay have opted to suspend their membership. UNASUR does not have joint security forces, though the organization’s founding treaty contains a clause that, if invoked, would allow members’ security forces to intervene in the domestic affairs of another member. No one wants to set such a precedent, but by leaving UNASUR, these countries have gained more control over how they can respond to Caracas. They realize they may need to take action to protect their national interests, and leaving the group puts them in a better position to do so down the road.
It makes sense that Colombia would be the most active country in this regard. It shares a border with Venezuela and thus has been disproportionately affected by Venezuela’s deterioration. But as other countries find their national interests threatened by the crisis, they too will want to chart their own course. This isn’t to say that this is the end of integration in South America, but multilateral organizations, particularly non-economic ones, will increasingly be pushed aside to better accommodate national interests.