Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos refused to criticize human rights abuses in Venezuela and told Fusion in a recent interview that he would rather not give his opinions on the country's political crisis "in public."
Santos said that Colombia is currently one of four countries observing talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition, and he fears that any public statements on Venezuela’s political crisis, even on something like human rights, could hamper the negotiations.
“The opposition asks me almost every day. Please don’t provoke the Venezuelan regime,” Santos said.
More than 2,000 protesters have been arrested in Venezuela since demonstrations against the government broke out on February 12, according to an Amnesty International report published in the first week of April.
Leopoldo Lopez, a well-known opposition leader who has backed anti-government protests, is facing conspiracy charges that could land him up to 14 years in prison.
In Colombia, conservative leaders have asked Santos to stand up against authoritarianism in Venezuela, with former President Alvaro Uribe calling the country a “dictatorship”target whose agenda must be stopped before it spreads throughout the hemisphere.
But Santos argued on Monday that the best approach that Colombia can take toward the crisis in neighboring Venezuela is a cautious one that doesn’t spark tensions with that country’s socialist government.
“We are countries that depend on each other very much and any difference that we have, we talk about the difference through diplomatic channels or private channels, not insulting each other through the media,” Santos said.
“We have a clear rule of the game with Venezuela since I made peace with Chavez,” Santos added. “They don’t interfere in our internal affairs and we don’t interfere in their internal affairs.”
Santos has attempted to improve relations with Venezuela since he took office in 2010, staying away from public criticisms of that country’s political system, and focusing instead on issues that could benefit people on both sides of the border, like bilateral commerce.
Both countries share a 1,400 mile long border that is within a few hours drive of several major cities.
Despite the cautious approach by Santos, commerce with Venezuela has not improved.
Currency exchange controls imposed by the government of Venezuela, inflation in Venezuela and the devaluation of its currency have hampered business between both countries.
According to Semana Magazine, bilateral trade between Colombia and Venezuela fell from $6 billion in 2008 to just over $2 billion in 2013.
Colombian officials are currently betting that a series of negotiations between Venezuela’s opposition and government, which started in April, will bear fruit.
Colombia is acting as one of four countries that are overseeing the talks, and Santos has been at pains to appear as a neutral observer in this process.
“At this moment we are participating in a group of three countries Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia with the presence of the Vatican in order to facilitate the dialogue,” Santos said. “So I have to be extremely careful and prudent.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.