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Colombia's Stance On The Venezuela Political Crisis


Colombia and Venezuela share more than a thousand miles of border, and more than a million Venezuelans have recently poured across that border. So Venezuela's economic and political chaos are sending shockwaves across Colombia. Francisco Santos is Colombia's ambassador to the United States, and he joins us now in the studio to discuss the next steps in Venezuela. Welcome.

FRANCISCO SANTOS: Ari, it's a pleasure being here.

SHAPIRO: Just to remind listeners, two men claim to lead Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro is holding onto power. He has the support of Russia and China, among other countries. And many Western countries, including the U.S. and Colombia, support opposition leader Juan Guaido. They've been calling for Maduro to step down, and he refuses.

So how do you see the stalemate ending?

SANTOS: Let me add something. It's not only Colombia. You have 600,000 Venezuelans in Peru. You have 250,000 Venezuelans in Ecuador. You had 180,000 in Chile, and you have around 100,000 in Argentina.

SHAPIRO: And so the population is pouring out of the country.

SANTOS: It's a continental crisis. It's something that the Western Hemisphere has not had in its history. So it's a very, very big challenge that can destabilize the whole continent.

SHAPIRO: And how do you reverse this?

SANTOS: I think, obviously, Maduro must step down. Obviously, what we need is free and fair democratic votes in Venezuela, which is something that was taken away from the Venezuelans many, many years ago. So we're working, all of the countries, to get important members of the military to back Guaido, and I think that's the tipping point.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was in your country, Colombia, this week, where he insisted that all options remain on the table. That includes military options. As ambassador, what have you told the U.S. about that possibility?

SANTOS: We have never discussed anything related to military action.

SHAPIRO: At all? You haven't even warned them against it?

SANTOS: No, no. We haven't discussed that. We've worked very clearly in terms of diplomatic pressure, economic pressure. The economic sanctions are only starting to hurt. Probably, there's two or three more weeks of cash that they have, and then they're literally going to run out of cash. So that's another step.

SHAPIRO: Are you saying you expect this to end in two or three weeks?

SANTOS: No, no, no - that the crisis will deepen and that even the most staunch supporters of Maduro will start looking the other way. And we hope that this will end well, but it can go bad very quickly. For the first time, I heard in the border people saying, we want weapons. And they can get weapons.

SHAPIRO: Who at the border is asking for weapons? What do you mean there?

SANTOS: The young kids who are throwing rocks at the other side, trying to get the...

SHAPIRO: Do you mean kids on the Colombia side throwing rocks at the Venezuelan military?

SANTOS: Yeah. The Venezuelan kids.

SHAPIRO: Venezuelan...

SANTOS: And saying, listen, we're not going to let them kill us without being able to protect ourselves. That's the first time I've heard that. And I was worried sick because it's very easy to get weapons. We don't want to follow that path. That path is a civil war. And a civil war would be a disaster for the U.S., for Canada, for all the country.

SHAPIRO: Maduro claims that this is a U.S.-backed coup effort, that Juan Guaido is a puppet of the Americans. Does the Trump administration risk playing into that narrative with its actions?

SANTOS: Well, I think he, Maduro, wants that to be the discourse. But if you look, almost all of the countries in Latin America are for a Maduro exit. This, the Grupo de Lima, did not have the U.S.

SHAPIRO: The Grupo de Lima is an association of Latin American countries that came out with a statement saying it's time for Maduro to leave.

SANTOS: Exactly. And the U.S. wasn't there. It's not present. This is something that Colombia has led. You have Argentina. You have Brazil. You have Chile. You have Panama, Costa Rica. So this is something that the continent has led and has led diplomatically. And, look, for the first time in Latin American history, Latin American countries are sanctioning another country from Latin America without the U.S. being involved. That shows a maturity from the Latin American diplomacy that we didn't have five, 10, 15, 20 years ago.

SHAPIRO: The humanitarian crisis is one of the worst in Latin American history, and more Venezuelans have gone to Colombia than any other country. Does Colombia have what it needs to deal with the need there?

SANTOS: No. We are doing our best effort. But I'll give you - more than 180,000 attendances in ICU are Venezuelans in the last year. Hundred and eighty-thousand.

SHAPIRO: People, Venezuelans in the ICU in Colombia, in Colombia...

SANTOS: Because of malnutrition. Kids come. Women, pregnant, ready to lose the baby because of malnourishment. We have seen chicken pox, we have seen polio - sicknesses that, in Colombia, were eradicated decades ago are back. So our health system is very stressed. Our classrooms are up to the limit. If we get one more million - that can happen very quickly - they will start affecting employment in Colombia for Colombians. And then you can have xenophobia, and you have something like that. And that's a flame that, you light it, and you don't know how to put it down.

So, yes, we're worried. The U.S. is helping, definitely. Very much so. We need more help to treat this huge migration crisis.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Santos, thank you so much.

SANTOS: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Francisco Santos is Colombia's ambassador to the United States. And elsewhere on the show, we hear from Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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