Where Chavez's tirades matter

CUCUTA, Colombia — Few regions of Colombia have as much at stake in Sunday's elections as the towns on the Venezuela border.

Caught in the middle of two spatting presidents and suffering from an economy devastated by the freezing of cross-border trade, residents can't help but worry about Colombia’s bristling relationship with its next-door neighbor.

Trade between the two countries has dropped 70 percent in April compared to the same period last year and security concerns are running high. “For people living on the border, the elections are a big barometer for what could change,” said Socorro Ramirez, a Venezuela expert with the University of Rosario’s Observatory on Venezuela.

Read also: In Colombian mountain town, security buys votes

Tensions between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela have increased in recent years. They spiked following the Colombian military bombing of a FARC guerrilla camp on Ecuadorian soil, prompting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to send tanks to the border with Colombia in an act of solidarity with Ecuador.

Colombia signed a controversial agreement last year granting the U.S. access to an additional seven Colombian military bases. Chavez deemed the bases a threat to Venezuela’s sovereignty and closed the border to many imports, including meat and milk.

With an estimated 90 percent of goods produced in the border department of Norte de Santander destined for export to Venezuela, thousands have lost their jobs.

Both Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe have accused one another of meddling in their country’s affairs, and Colombia has repeatedly charged Chavez with giving safe haven to Colombian guerrillas.

Their strong and conflicting personalities have helped exacerbate the conflict, and border residents have much at stake in choosing Uribe's replacement. But both candidates in the run-off vote — Juan Manuel Santos, president of Uribe’s “U” party, and Antanas Mockus, a Green Party candidate and two-time mayor Bogota — generate concerns for many border voters.

Two months ago, many were ready to cast their ballot toward Mockus — just because he wasn’t Santos.

Santos has been aggressive in his verbal attacks toward Chavez, and many fear what could happen should Santos further provoke Chavez. “The relationship that we could have with Chavez will be worse with Santos,” said Jairo Guerrero Rubio, manager of Cooperativa Gran Colombia, which groups together thousands of vendors who sell cheap contraband gasoline smuggled in from Venezuela.

As minister of defense under Uribe, Santos played a key role in planning the bombing of the guerrilla camp in Ecuador and bringing to fruition the military base agreement with the U.S. — both drew ire and backlash from Chavez. The Venezuelan president has branded Santos a “threat” to the region and announced that if the Harvard-trained economist becomes president, trade between the two countries could fall to zero.

But rather than inspiring fear of a Santos presidency among voters, Chavez’ remarks had the opposite effect, drawing attention to the need for a firm hand to deal with the confrontational and unpredictable Chavez. Santos’ campaign capitalized on these moments by presenting its candidate as the one capable of keeping Chavez at bay, In contrast, Mockus, whose measured and diplomatic demeanor had been seen as promising for normalizing relationships with Venezuela, was then portrayed by Santos and media commentators as too weak and indecisive for the task.

“Santos has a strong character, and we need someone like that,” said Rodrigo Contreras, 30, a sugar cane cutter since he was 14, though he doesn’t think the relationship with Venezuela will improve under Santos. Sugar cane workers, who make $13 a day, saw their jobs disappear overnight when Chavez shut the border to certain imports, including sugar cane.

Ironically, “Every time Chavez made a statement, it helped Santos,” said Andres Ramirez Galvis, a Cucuta journalist specializing in the economy.

It didn’t help Mockus when he said he “admired” Chavez (he then retracted his statement and explained he “respected” Chavez’s democratic election) — a fatal mistake to make in a country where, according to a recent Gallup poll, 94 percent of Colombians dislike Chavez. LINK

Then, two days before the May 30 first-round vote, Chavez announced he would work with whichever candidate Colombians chose, alleviating concerns for those who feared hostile relations between Santos and Chavez. “This radically changed the situation,” said Ramirez Galvis.

In a first round of voting, Norte de Santander gave 54 percent of their votes to Santos and only 19 percent to Mockus.

The commercial and security concerns that run high along the border are shared in other parts of Colombia, and the question of how each candidate would approach its neighbor is a central one in this electoral campaign.

Mockus is trying to assure voters that his use of the constitution and diplomacy will be constructive and non-threatening toward Chavez, while trying not to appear as a pushover. Santos, saying he will maintain a firm hand, has adopted a softer tone likely to assuage concerns that he may provoke conflict. When asked how he plans on improving relations with Venezuela, he told GlobalPost: “With good will, diplomacy and respect for the differences of opinion with President Chavez.”

But solutions to the border crisis have gone little beyond vague promises of diplomacy. “Neither candidate has a clear plan of government for the border,” said a Cucuta municipal employee. On a campaign stop in Cucuta, Santos proposed creating a tax-free zone for goods on the Colombian and Venezuelan sides of the border. The employee, who asked not to be named because he is not permitted to voice political opinions, sees it as a vacuous promise to get votes: “How is Santos, who is not a friend of Chavez, going to arrange that?” he questioned. “It’s not logical.”

The lack of easy solutions to the “Venezuela problem,” as it is often referred to, has meant certainty about only one thing: “The new president must take the border as a priority,” said Ramirez, the professor. She says the new government’s relationship with Venezuela “has to become de-personalized and mechanisms must be created to generate dialogue between the various ministries.

Despite the concerns of many border voters about both candidates, the election also presents new opportunity.

“People here think this [crisis] will change because it has to,” said Ramirez Galvis, the journalist.