The rupture of diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Colombia after a special session of the Organization of American States (OAS) on July 22 marks increased animosity between the outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez.
The dispute between the two bombastic leaders from opposite political poles is nothing new. What creates the drama -- and the possibilities -- of this new turn of events is the backdrop.
Uribe is a lame duck, ever since being denied a constitutional amendment to run for a third term. His successor, Juan Manuel Santos, will take office on August 7. Santos' inauguration marks the end of the eight-year reign of Uribe, whose military strategies to counter drug runners and guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) have been backed by the U.S. government to the tune of some $7 billion dollars. While leading to some advances in reducing assassinations and kidnappings in Colombia, these strategies failed to achieve peace, and the Colombian conflict continues to take lives and cause tension throughout the region.
Santos is Uribe's chosen successor. Why would the president seek out a diplomatic crisis on the eve of his inauguration? By precipitating a break in relations with Venezuela, Uribe seems to be expressing doubts that his political heir will comply with his hard-line policies. On his way out, Uribe is attempting to lock in confrontational policies that have left Colombia with few allies in the South.
OAS Questioned as Forum
Uribe took his parting shot at Venezuela from the floor of the Organization of American States (OAS). Following a long paean to his government's achievements, Colombian delegate Luis Alfonso Hoyos stated that some 1,500 guerrilla members "use Venezuelan territory with impunity" to launch attacks on Colombia, and engage in the trafficking of drugs and arms. Hoyos presented alleged proofs and called for an investigation.
Venezuelan delegate Roy Chaderton questioned the evidence presented and pointed to what he considered the biased use of the OAS. If any bilateral issue could be the subject of a special session, he suggested, then equal treatment would include calling for an investigation of the seven military bases that the Colombian government has ceded to U.S. military use. Venezuela stated that the Colombian government has failed to adequately supervise the border region and noted the difficulty of patrolling some 1,375 miles of mostly jungle border.
That same day, Chavez announced he was breaking off relations between the two countries in defense of his country's "dignity."
Several countries had opposed the special session, saying it would only exacerbate tensions. Venezuela called it a "media circus." Ecuador complained bitterly of the use of the OAS for the Colombian allegations. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño could not resist saying "I told you so" when the session led to the rupture of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
OAS Secretary General Jose Insulza seems to have damaged relations with many nations by ceding to Colombian pressure to call the special session. The organization seemed to recognize its faux pas in a press release that backed off spearheading any major effort against Venezuela. "The OAS has expressed its willingness to mediate, such as it has done at other occasions, but those that must decide this are the two countries through mutual agreement," the release read. "Never should this Organization be imposed upon the sovereignty of the countries, because it is an organization of a multilateral and not of a supranational character."
Insulza's neutrality has also been questioned due to his recent lobbying in the longstanding battle over the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. In an op-ed in the Denver Post he called for the U.S. Congress to support the agreement. In this way, the OAS head placed itself opposite South American nations that reject U.S. free trade agreements as a violation of sovereignty, and ignored the concerns of human rights and labor groups in the U.S. and Colombia.
Another Defining Moment for U.S. Foreign Policy
At the special session, U.S. Ambassador Carmen Lomellin took a cautious stance. In her intervention, she reviewed a series of resolutions on the commitment to fight terrorism in the region -- an issue that was not in dispute -- and urged the two countries to find "acceptable solutions," without specifically calling for the formation of an OAS commission.
State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley endorsed an international investigation, but stated that the venue could be the OAS or the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the regional organization of Latin American countries preferred by Brazil. In the July 23 press conference, he criticized the Venezuelan government:
Venezuela among other states in the region have very clear responsibilities to combat terrorism in the region and to support efforts within the OAS and within the UN to fight terrorism wherever it is, expressly because of our concerns about the links between Venezuela and the FARC that we have not certified Venezuela in recent years as fully cooperating with the United States and others in terms of these antiterrorism efforts.
When asked whether a finding of "harboring terrorists" would warrant an invasion as happened in Afghanistan, Crowley responded that the two cases were not entirely comparable, and that the U.S. government would like to see the issue resolved peacefully. Nonetheless, the suggestion of another military action under the pretext of terrorism was startlingly out in the open.
Brazil"s government has made it clear that it would like the matter to be taken up within UNASUR, without the influence of the United States. It proclaimed South America a "region of peace" and affirmed that problems between countries should be first dealt with bilaterally.
Colombia's Controversial Transition
One explanation for Uribe's public denouncement of Venezuela just before stepping down is that the Colombian leader is concerned that the incoming president will be too conciliatory toward the Chavez administration. An editorial in La Semana posits that the timing was carefully calculated "to sabotage attempts of the new president Santos to normalize relations with the government of Hugo Chavez."
There have been insistent reports that Santos favors a thawing of relations between the two countries. The president-elect has made several statements indicating his intention to rebuild relations with the neighboring country.
He has a strong incentive to do so. Although an offensive posture toward Chavez has served to cement relations with the United States and rally Colombian voters around the "democratic security" strategy and the U.S. base agreement, it's turning into a disaster for the economy. The Colombian government recently reported that Colombian exports to Venezuela fell 71 percent between January and May of this year compared to the same period last year, representing a loss of an estimated 350,000 jobs. The Colombian Treasury Department calculates that the drop in trade with Venezuela will cost the economy a half point of growth this year, on top of a full point last year. Venezuela froze trade with its neighbor to protest Colombia's agreement to grant U.S. access to seven military bases in the country.
Former Bush State Department official Roger Noriega, a fierce critic of Chavez and ardent supporter of Uribe, also notes that Uribe's attack has made life difficult for Santos, but from the other side of the ideological fence. "Ironically, one of the governments that Uribe's diplomatic gambit puts on the spot is that of his own successor, Juan Manuel Santos, who takes office on August 7. Some observers say that Uribe is miffed at Santos's rush to show his independence by making appointments and taking initiatives that benefit Uribe's bitterest rivals. Another view is that Uribe wanted to ensure that his successor could not seek accommodations with the dangerous Chávez." Noriega concludes that the United States should support the "gambit" by backing the outgoing president in his allegations against Venezuela.
But nothing could be more dangerous to stability in the region than a U.S.-Colombian offensive against Venezuela at the moment of political transition. Uribe has consistently relied on the visceral response of the international right, strong U.S. support, and nationalist anti-Venezuela sentiment in Colombia to build a fear of Chavez that is based more on created perception than on cool-headed analysis.
According to press reports, the Venezuelan government is now visiting countries throughout South America to consult on a peace plan to be presented at the UNASUR meeting on July 29. Reuters quoted Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro saying, "Venezuela ... is going with a proposed peace plan. We have to solve the underlying problem, which is the war in Colombia."
The coming weeks will show how this drama plays out. Uribe's parting shot may have gone straight into his own foot. Instead of trapping his successor into a hard-line position toward Venezuela, the public denunciation has mobilized South American efforts to seek peace and conciliation -- not by focusing exclusively on Venezuela's potential role in harboring guerrillas but on promoting peace talks to end the conflict in Colombia. The rupture with Venezuela, meanwhile, has stirred debate in the Colombian media about the economic cost of hostilities and caused even conservative business groups to question the wisdom of distancing the nation from its neighbor and major trade partner. This would indicate pressure for a more pragmatic approach from the new government.
The OAS may be digging its own grave by allowing the U.S. and Colombian governments to use the multilateral forum for grandstanding and ideological agendas. The imbalance in its approach has eroded its credibility and given credence to the call for strengthening alternative forums for Latin American diplomacy such as UNASUR, where Washington is not included. This shouldn't be viewed as a negative outcome, since it encourages regional solutions to regional problems and more equal relations based on diplomacy rather than superior military might.
Once again, Colombia and the United States have alienated the regional powerhouse, Brazil, and other allies. If the U.S. government does not support South American efforts outside the OAS to resolve the crisis, the hemispheric fault line originating in the Andes will widen -- to the detriment of the population in all countries. But if the call for a peace plan in Colombia finds support in Latin America and within the new Santos government, the United States will have to decide whether to lend full support to peace efforts or continue the military strategies of Plan Colombia. In addition to Venezuela, Brazil and UNASUR (under the leadership of Nestor Kirchner) are also discussing peace efforts. Many Latin American nations will likely support a plan. If Colombia and the U.S. government reject these efforts, they will have to answer to accusations of obstructing regional peace-building projects.
Uribe has stated that he will not be "tricked" by talks of peace. As long as Colombia, backed by the United States, refuses to believe in peace and actively promotes conflict by dividing nations and shifting responsibilities, there will be no progress toward peace. Venezuela is increasing its military presence in the border region and Colombian belligerence has increased. Few people believe that a military clash between the two nations is imminent. But the situation can worsen even short of war. The U.S. military will continue to play a major role in Colombian territory as U.S. defense companies receive juicy contracts and U.S. taxpayers foot the bill for a policy that has not worked. Millions of Colombians have been displaced by the seemingly endless conflict. Human rights violations and scandals such as the "false positives" murdered by the Colombian army raise serious questions about the social costs of the war. Tensions with neighboring nations -- not just Venezuela -- have been fanned by Uribe's confrontational stance.
Is the United States willing to risk regional peace and security simply to support Colombia and score points against Venezuela?