President Santos’ policy of rapprochement with Venezuela has suffered a significant and unexpected setback: the resignation of José Fernando Bautista, Colombia’s ambassador to the Bolivarian Republic.
Bautista submitted his farewell letter anticipating revelations of deals with the infamous Nule Group, whose owners, two brothers and their cousin, remain in prison while they face trial for what will perhaps be the greatest corruption scandal in Colombia’s history. The case involves multi-million bribes and illegal commissions in public contracting. The Nule scandal has also resulted in the suspension of Bogotá Mayor Samuel Moreno, the arrest of his brother Iván —a senator— and the imprisonment of a number of second-rank officials.
At this point, it’s still not clear what kind of job Mr. Bautista did for the Nules. A long-time successful lobbyist, he might have sold his ability to be influential in the highest circles of fovernment. But concerns have arisen that he might have gone beyond this, and that he could have been involved in an alleged plot to discredit Sandra Morelli, the Colombia’s comptroller general. Mr. Bautista claims in his letter that he did nothing but advising what at the time was a successful and respected corporate group. This defense leaves a question open: if this was the case, why did he feel compelled to resign? It’s hard not to suspect there’s something more.
Santos’ foreign policy suffers an unlikely blow, and a big one. Big, because he loses more than an ambassador: Bautista is personally very close to Santos, and played a crucial role as a strategist in his presidential campaign. Having been born and raised in Cúcuta, a city in the border, he has a deep knowledge of Venezuela and its politics. Bautista has been involved from the beginning in the design and execution of the rapprochement policy.
This blow is also unlikely and unexpected: the rapprochement policy faces considerable risks. But among them was not the possibility of losing an ambassador due to ramifications of a corruption scandal. Now that this has happened, the other risks appear more severe: having lost his trusted ambassador, Santos might have a harder time convincing Colombians that Hugo Chávez, perceived as an ally of the FARC, and remembered as a man who frequently insulted President Uribe, and who even threatened military action against Colombia, can be trusted and welcome as the “new best friend” (in Santos’ words).
*Andres Mejia Vergnaud is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the academic director at Bogotá's Instituto de Ciencia Politica.