BOGOTA — They may lambast each other at every opportunity, but what if Nicolás Maduro and Álvaro Uribe were actually kindred spirits? On one side, Venezuela's combative, at times comical, socialist President Maduro, and on the other, Colombia's arch-conservative former President and current Senator Uribe.
Already famed for his verbal spats with Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chávez, Uribe has become a bête noire for leftists across the continent. Yet the political nemeses are practically two sides of the same coin (though their supporters would hate to hear it) of that crass brand of populism, which we keep hoping is a thing of the past.
Their methods are similar, as is their conduct. With their irresponsible declarations, they spread hate and fan their partisans' most primitive feelings. Seen through their fanatical ideological prisms, their opponents become mortal enemies, dismissed in turn as paramilitaries or "terrorists."
The expulsion of thousands of Colombians from western Venezuela, seen recently wading across the river into Colombia like the refugees we see on the news, apparently so distant from us, is the work of a desperate and crazy leader trying to hold onto power in Venezuela. And it suits him just fine to receive an incendiary response from another crazy on this side, one desperate to recover the presidential "throne" he had to abandon and without which his life has no meaning.
It is no surprise that Maduro should invoke nationalism to throw out the poorest among his Colombian "brothers," when people in Venezuela are starting to go hungry and his government faces an unprecedented economic crisis. And more to the point, it all comes in the run-up to the December elections for the National Assembly, where independent polls are currently forecasting an opposition victory — if there is actually nationwide voting. Such a defeat could make life much more difficult for this rather uncharismatic successor to the late Bolivarian icon.
No one is surprised either by Uribe breaking the tradition of Colombian leaders giving unconditional support to the sitting president, especially when Colombia is to hold municipal and regional elections in October. His Democratic Center party is not doing well, particularly in the country's bigger cities. In smaller districts, he has had to ally himself with people who are presumably his opponents, that is the parties backing the moderately conservative President Juan Manuel Santos. Yet he was swift to arrive these days in the frontier town of Cúcuta, with his shameless opportunism, to make political capital out of the human misery of the border dispute with Venezuela.
Maduro talks as if the cross-border problems (of trafficking and gang activity) began yesterday and were entirely the work of Colombians, and not a single Venezuelan: "We are discovering the frightening reality of how crime, the criminal economy and paramilitarism have settled" in the area, he declared.
Uribe responds in Cúcuta: "Just as (Cuba's) Castro used a thick wall to murder dissidents, the Venezuelan dictatorship is abolishing liberties to mistreat the democratic opposition."
Maduro calls Uribe a "cynic" and the "king of false positives" — a reference to the innocent people killed by Colombian troops and falsely identified as FARC guerrillas — and accuses him of involvement in unspecified "massacres in Colombia."
Uribe shoots back: "How much longer will the Venezuelan dictatorship last? What they have is the rule of the Castro-Chávez dictatorship mistreating and trampling on humble workers."
And on and on it goes ...
They say something good comes out of every misfortune. Perhaps the mirror-image of extremism of the Uribe-Maduro epoch is destined to give way to leadership of common sense on both sides of the border.