The main risk of Colombia is to become a second Venezuela

Humberto Calderon Berti
Photo: Archive

More than half a century has passed since Humberto Calderón Berti began a brilliant professional career inside and outside his country. He held positions such as president of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), minister of Energy and Petroleum, chancellor and president of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Militant of the Social Christian Copei party, after the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power he was part of the opposition. He also had businesses in Colombia, a country he knows very well. In fact, he was appointed ambassador to Bogotá by the interim government of Juan Guaidó in 2019.

The relationship between the two did not end well and Calderón Berti traveled to Spain, where he lives. From there he spoke with TIME in the wake of the reopening this Monday of the border from Colombia and Venezuela.

—How do you analyze this new stage between the two countries?

—The reopening is undoubtedly positive, especially for the border areas from La Guajira to Arauca. The closure made it easier for all illegality to be promoted, including guerrillas, drug trafficking, smuggling or human trafficking, which is a great headache. This is good news, particularly for the Táchira and Norte de Santander area, which has always been very lively and is now going to be reactivated.

—One of the promises is that of a jump in the numbers of commercial exchange. Do you agree with those who say that Colombia could sell billions of dollars in exports to its neighbor?

—The economic situation that Venezuela is going through gives the coming relationship a very unequal character. The productive workforce in the Venezuelan case is destroyed, as is the oil industry. This drop in crude oil production, from 3 million barrels a day to around 650,000 today, limits the availability of foreign exchange and the ability to purchase imported products.

It is also very important that this does not feel like an enslavement by Colombia, which is going to have a very favorable trade balance, but that we must find a way to bring about integration schemes between companies to avoid feelings of negatives.

– What reaction generates you that Caracas is guarantor of the dialogues with the ELN?

—It is no secret to anyone that the ELN has been present in the border areas for a long time. Hopefully what is sought leads to that reality being composed. If Venezuela participates without any crooked spirit in the peace process, I see it well. But that requires a great deal of neutrality and good faith, beginning by disregarding the spirit of fishing in a troubled river.

—You were ambassador of Juan Guaidó in Bogotá. How was that experience?

—Being ambassador to Colombia gave me a lot of insight into what an extremely complex job means. And this is more challenging than before due to the presence of more than two million poor Venezuelans in Colombian territory.

—What happened to the Venezuelan opposition and why did the diplomatic siege fail?

—At the end of 2019, the support it had was very large, close to 80% of the population. But big mistakes were made in political leadership. Some of that happened in Colombia with the resources that were diverted in Cúcuta and that were intended for humanitarian aid for the military that left Venezuela. And the sum of great mistakes began to accumulate over time, before which the majority support ended. This circumstance is accentuated by the political changes that have occurred in the region, as is the case of Peru, Chile or Colombia. Hence, the militant support for the cause of democracy in Venezuela is no longer the same. Then we are paying the consequences.

—There is also the case of Monomers. What happened?

—It became a real piñata in which the parties that made up the coalition that supported the interim government participated. Initially I got involved to try to get a professional board of directorsl. However, shortly after, undue interference began to be seen from what is known as the G4, trying not only to politicize the board, but also the executive positions.

Things got to the point where the financial situation became very precarious. And the current situation is the result of undesirable practices.

At the time, I told Juan Guaidó that this was the opportunity to show that a different government in Venezuela would handle matters differently, with orthodoxy. But that was not done like that, with the results in sight. I wish we could go back to the past, when this was a joint venture, with the participation of both nations.

—How do you rate the approach of the White House to the Maduro government?

—The policy of the United States has been somewhat erratic. The recent approaches were not consulted with the opposition and, on the other hand, the sanctions applied to various officials of the regime did not have the expected effects. Initially, the Biden administration showed a lot of commitment to the attempt to restore democracy in Venezuela, but now the signal is not the same. I believe that the recent approach is heterodox, without achieving its objectives, which is used by Maduro to try to take advantage of the situation.

—What reaction does the possibility of Colombia importing gas from Venezuela generate?

-You face a complicated situation from the point of view of oil and natural gas reserves, which are quite limited. Colombia would benefit from an exploratory activity so that what happened before does not happen to it, when it was forced to be a net importer. The success, when production doubled in the first decade of this century, could be replicated, but there is no doubt that this is not the priority now. So the risk is very great for the ten million households that use gas, as well as for industry and transportation.

It is true that Venezuela could supply them, but that requires significant investments, because one thing is to have the reserves and another to export them. What is best for you, in any case, is to have the flexibility that comes from developing your own deposits and relying on your neighbor.

—By the way, how do you feel about the Petro government’s idea of ​​moving away from fossil fuels more quickly?

—Just as the 20th century was that of oil, the 21st will be that of the transition to other energy sources. What happens is that this process is not going to happen with the speed that many yearn for, due to the characteristics of solar or wind energy. That is why I believe that dependence on hydrocarbons is going to remain high for a long time, whatever is said. Getting a replacement in the short term is not going to be possible. This is going to be progressive and we have to work on both fronts: use oil resources to advance in sustainable sources.

– Do you think that Colombia could still have important oil discoveries?

“I have no doubt that they still have many areas to explore further. But that requires legal stability and good rules of the game so that the investments that are required arrive. It seems to me that in the foothills of the Llanos or in the Magdalena there are possibilities of significant finds, both in light and heavy crude. If they don’t do anything about it, they will end up keeping those resources underground.

—What do you think of “fracking” and the criticisms that are made of it?

—For me it has been the most revolutionary discovery since when this industry began at the end of the 19th century. The change that this generated in the United States was enormous, since it improved its energy security. Two technologies were combined here: hydraulic fracturing, which dates back to the 1940s, and horizontal drilling. Both allow the oil trapped in the shale formations to be released. Regarding the risks, to date more than a million wells have been drilled in the United States and the lessons learned are enormous.

Unfortunately, a series of unfounded myths have been created that many people believe. On this, the important thing is to go to the evidence and science that shows that the risks are mitigatable. But if the debate becomes emotional or political, the discussion is very difficult.

—What is going to happen to oil in the world in the next few years?

—It will continue to be a first-rate energy source. Obviously, if a clean and competitive alternative appears, it could go down faster, but that until now is speculation. And the war in Ukraine highlights that energy security is absolutely key for countries, whether they are rich, poor or middle-income.

Humberto Calderón Berti was the ambassador of Juan Guaidó in Bogotá. Photo: EFE

—What reports do you receive from Colombia?

“I’m keeping a close eye on what’s going on. It is a country that I love very much for many reasons. I even worked there for almost ten years with an oil company that we developed between Colombians and Venezuelans.

I have great friends there and I greatly appreciate the way our people have been treated, starting with the economic refugees and continuing with the politicians. Having opened your arms through the special residence permit, access to health or education is something that is infinitely appreciated.

The signals I receive are contradictory. They range from the refusal to extradite the enemies of the Maduro regime, something that I applaud, to the expressions about what happened in Chile and the characterization of a decision made in democracy by the majority of its citizens, which seemed wrong to me.

—Do you think we are heading towards Castrochavism?

—When the Cuban exiles told us in Venezuela to be careful because the same thing could happen to us, we answered that it was impossible, and the reality ended up being worse. Our humanitarian crisis, the worst in the history of the Americas, is the expression of what happened.

Now there is a bubble that gives a false sense of normality in Caracas and its surroundings, but the reading is the same. Back to the question, of course it is feasible that what happened to us will happen to them, although we are very different from the institutional point of view and civility. It all depends on what President Petro does. If he surrenders himself into the arms of Cuba and radicalizes himself according to what the São Paulo Forum says, the risk will be greater. I find it difficult for it to happen, but we have to think of different scenarios so that Colombian society reacts in time.

—What is the main risk faced by Colombians?

—Becoming a second Venezuela, I repeat. Even so, I hope that President Petro maintains the tone of moderation that he showed at the beginning and respects private property. That the peace process advances and is successful seems extraordinary to me; that it seeks to diversify the economy so that it depends less on mining and oil seems extraordinary to me. There will be people who will seek to go much further, but that will depend on how citizens react in a country where opinion is fragmented.

“And what’s the big chance?”

—A young and hard-working population, natural resources and, most importantly, land and water. They have a way to become a regional power if they make the right decisions. On the contrary, if they make a mistake and take outdated policies that didn’t work, there they have the example of their neighbor.

—How do you imagine Venezuela in five years?

—If we continue in the same way as now, the country is going to become poorer. Migration will continue and our people will be used, like now when they ended up being used in the internal political game of the United States. For that not to happen, a change of government will be necessary. I cannot imagine Maduro making acts of contrition.

“Is it worth staying optimistic?”

-By nature I am optimistic, but it is also necessary to be realistic and open your eyes because difficult times are coming. My advice is to pinch yourself and don’t let your guard down.

*The Grupo de Diarios América (GDA), to which El Nacional belongs, is a leading media network founded in 1991 that promotes democratic values, an independent press and freedom of expression in Latin America through quality journalism for our audiences.

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