The border dispute between Colombia and Venezuela dates back to 1830, the year when Simon Bolivar died. Viewed by many as the father of South American democracy, his vision of building a “Gran Colombia” comprising Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador, began to fall apart.
Colombia and Venezuela share a 1,378 mile (2,219 km) long border, and disputes regarding maritime boundaries and territorial rights have been ongoing despite several treaties signed to resolve border differences.
1836-1840: Discussions between the two countries fail to reach a settlement on the border.
1881: Treaty on Arbitration was signed between the United States of Colombia and the United States of Venezuela.
1891: Both countries approach Spain for settlement of the border dispute.
1891: Arbitration Award on Border Settlement between Colombia and Venezuela was issued by the Queen Regent Maria Cristina at the Royal Palace of Madrid in Spain. The Award favored Colombia. Venezuela was unhappy with the decision.
1917: Both countries approach Switzerland for arbitration towards a fair settlement.
1922: Arbitration Award of the Swiss Federation Council. Venezuela was unhappy with the final decision.
1932: Work begins to demarcate the border.
1941: Treaty on Demarcation of Borders and Navigation of Common Rivers with Venezuela.
The treaty was aimed at settling the maritime border, but the final award was disputed by nationalists in Venezuela who believed the country was denied a fair share of maritime waters. Venezuela accused Colombia of encroaching their waters in the Gulf of Venezuela.
Maximum territorial waters in the Gulf of Venezuela, also known as Gulf of Coquibacoa, and those around the Islets of Los Monjes, claimed by both countries, a demand that has become stronger after the discovery of petroleum in the region. The dispute over territorial waters existed due to different points of reference regarding the respective territorial waters.
The 1987 Caldas Corvettes crisis
In 1987, in an unprecedented move, the National Army of Colombia during President Virgilio Barco’s tenure moved two Caldas Corvettes to the disputed Los Monjes Islets region.
Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi responded by ordering his troops to the region and had F-16 fighter jets fly over the disputed Islets. Both countries came close to a military conflict, but hectic diplomatic activity between the two countries averted the crisis from blowing over. President Barco ordered the Corvettes back to port.
Negotiation to resolve the territorial border dispute carried on between 1989 and 1995 under the mutually agreed framework of Declarations of San Pedro Alejandrino and Ureña. By now, trade between the two countries had risen and seemed to overshadow the ongoing territorial dispute.
In 2009, President Hugo Chavez abruptly called off negotiations and unilaterally dissolved the negotiation commission. After Hugo Chavez’s death in 2013, Nicholas Maduro has been serving as President. He has carried forward policies laid down by his predecessor Chavez and in 2015 issued a military decree that impacted the ongoing territorial dispute with Colombia.
Maduro’s Military decree in 2015
Relations that were stable if not improved between the two countries once again took a dip. On May 26, 2015, President Maduro announced the executive order 1787 creating four insular maritime zones. The official reason was to strengthen the country’s defenses. The zones included the disputed territorial waters with Colombia, and expectedly, Colombia protested the decree.
On July 6, 2015, President Maduro replaced Order 1787 with 1859, explaining it addressed the country’s defense needs without defining or including any territory perceived disputed. Colombia rejected this as well.
The migrant crisis
In August 2015, the shooting and injuring of three Venezuelan soldiers along the border town with Colombia in the Táchira state triggered a major humanitarian crisis. President Nicholas Maduro responded by declaring a state of emergency and ordered all Colombians without valid papers to go back to Colombia. Overnight, Venezuelan police and army officials began marking shanties of Colombians with ‘R’ if the home was searched, and ‘D’ if identified for demolition. It created widespread panic among the Colombians living there.
The region along the border has several thousands of Colombians who have been living in Venezuela for several decades if not generations. The migrant crisis left several families divided. Children who were attending school on the Venezuelan side were forced to quit, and many got left behind in Venezuela.
The action triggered a migrant crisis on the Colombian side which faced a sudden influx of people that needed immediate facilities like food, shelter and medical care. Colombian President Carlos Juan Manuel Santos responded by releasing $80 per day per family to the refugees and offered citizenship to those who wanted it. President Santos also called upon his counterpart to allow children to continue attending school on the Venezuelan side.
On August 12, Colombia recalled its Ambassador to Venezuela, and Venezuela reciprocated by calling back its Ambassador to Colombia.
Relations between the two countries grew worse and on September 12th, defense forces on both sides started mobilizing towards the border. The Colombian government accused the Venezuelan Air Force of violating its airspace, a charge the Venezuelan government denied, tension, however, continued to remain high between the countries.
On September 18th, around 15 Venezuelan soldiers crossed over into Colombia in hot pursuit of a criminal on a motorcycle. They entered his home to search and while leaving destroyed the motorcycle. The Colombian government protested the intrusion.
Conditions leading to border reopening
Relations continued to remain cold between the countries but improved by July 2016. The economic situation in Venezuela had reached crisis levels and had been so for the last couple of years. Food and essential supplies shortages were frustrating the local population, and the government had run out of dollars to pay for critical imports.
President Maduro was forced to reopen the border with Colombia on certain dates. In July that year, approximately 200,000 Venezuelan citizens crossed into Colombia desperate to purchase essentials to take back home.
The border opening had another consequence. Colombians who were unable to cross over in August 2015 began to flood into Colombia to escape the critical economic situation in Venezuela. The migration raised problems for both countries. Venezuela lost a large number of skilled and qualified professionals, and the Colombian economy came under added pressure.
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