Colombia and Venezuela
Recurrent tension between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela has encouraged several civil society cross-border peacebuilding initiatives, for example by the countries’ respective Chambers of Commerce, the social action agency of the Catholic Church (‘Pastoral Social’) and the Jesuit Service for Refugees.
One of the oldest and most significant initiatives has been an academic relationship that has evolved over the past 16 years between the main public universities of Colombia and Venezuela. It has been building a framework for communication between different sectors involved in bilateral relations [see Table 1]. It has involved research, publications and academic exchange, helping to construct a bilateral approach to promote better understanding of the problems underlying disputes between the two countries.
A number of bilateral academic activities have been carried out in the midst of intergovernmental friction and, by linking educational institutions in both countries with social organisations and local and national authorities, these have played an important role in finding ways to address urgent issues of mutual interest in the border areas and even beyond. At moments of particularly tense relations between Bogota and Caracas, the initiative has issued memorandums offering joint perspectives on disputed matters and promoting peaceful relations, despite political and economic differences.
Colombia and Ecuador
In March 2008 Ecuador cut diplomatic relations with Colombia. This was in protest against Colombia’s incursion in Ecuadorian territory to attack a camp where a high-ranking commander with the main Colombian rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was hiding.
The high economic and social impact of that diplomatic crisis on borderland populations has encouraged cross-border civil society peacebuilding cooperation between Colombia and Ecuador of unprecedented breadth and extent. Table 2 shows ten types of cross-border initiative which eventually contributed to the normalisation of relations.
Bilateral academic initiatives have involved seventeen universities from both Colombia and Ecuador, which have drawn attention to affected communities on both sides of the border. Indigenous communities, such as Cofanes, Pastos and Awa, and the African American communities that span the border, have strengthened their non-violent resistance to war through their own ‘Life Plan’ initiatives, which are strategies for development based on their own cultures and traditions.
Other cross-border civil society initiatives have included the following: demonstrations and meetings of women’s organisations from both countries; religious initiatives for humanitarian action; meetings of Chambers of Commerce; media forums; summits called by local authorities from bordering municipalities; and a bilateral environmental network. A Bilateral Dialogue Group (GBD) has also been set up, composed of ten well-known personalities from both countries. The GBD has sought to strengthen diplomatic bilateral relations, to facilitate mediation efforts and to set up dialogue with the respective governments.
The diversity of sectors involved in cross-border peacebuilding in Colombia and Ecuador has articulated a broad momentum of social dynamics and has been able to mobilise at critical moments of diplomatic tension.
Civil society initiatives in Colombia and Ecuador have had external assistance from international agencies, including financial support and help in convening and organising activities. This has helped civil initiatives to foster greater links and leverage with both national capitals and with international organisations. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been trying to develop its own initiatives to operate on both sides of the border, and assistance provided by the Carter Center and UNDP to the GBD enabled it to engage with the Organisation of American States (OAS).
External engagement has also played a more direct role, such as former US President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to mediate between Colombia and Ecuador. He was in contact with both countries’ presidents to help build trust between them, and also facilitated closer relations between Ecuador and the US government, which in turn had a positive influence over the Ecuadorian government’s relations with Colombia.
Achievements and lessons
Building peaceful coexistence between antagonistic neighbouring countries with different political and economic models, personal tensions between their leaders, and severe cross-border security problems has not been easy. But in August 2010, diplomatic relations were successfully re-¬established between Colombia and Venezuela and these are now being followed up by a confidence-building process.
Cross-border civil society peacebuilding initiatives have shown how boundaries between states are not just lines dividing two territories, but also involve people with close everyday relationships. They may belong to the same ethnic community or need to cooperate to exchange goods and services. By defending their rights, highlighting the situation at the borders, and gaining external support for their cause, they have challenged those who tend to criminalise populations living in conflict-affected areas.
When diplomatic channels have been blocked, civil society has been able to stress the importance of finding cross-border solutions to cross-border problems, and also to provide cross-border dialogue to facilitate interaction – either through existing networks or by establishing new ones. Borderland communities’ proximity to cross-border violence has provided both incentive to act, and insight into specific local circumstances to develop appropriate responses. Unilateral state responses, military approaches and centrally-imposed sanctions, served only to make life for people at the border even harder, and to distance relations between neighbours.
Cooperative cross-border analysis, for instance through academic exchanges, has provided a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the context, perspectives and needs, and has helped to reduce the impact of nationalist and hostile discourse by governments. Bringing together national authorities, border stakeholders and international development and humanitarian agencies has provided a useful platform to develop constructive cross-border responses. This alliance of initiatives and actors eventually reached the mass media and was thus able to influence governments who had initially been reluctant to listen. It is important that agreements and commitments reached by governments are followed up and monitored: sustainability of engagement is essential to prevent new crises.
Rapprochement between Colombia and Ecuador has developed more quickly than between Colombia and Venezuela. The greater diversity and scale of cross-border civil society peacebuilding engagement between Colombia and Ecuador, as well as the international support they gained, has been essential to this process. Tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have been more entrenched, probably due to more antagonistic political positions, as well as remaining territorial disputes. The contrast between both cases suggests significant potential for civil society engagement, but at the same time a threshold in the impact of their activities.
In any case, these case studies describe the potential negative consequences that central policies designed in capitals can have in peripheries, and the capacity of civilian initiatives at the borderland to develop a constructive counter-discourse that eventually redresses the central government’s approach.