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Colombia's Controversial Transition

Uribe’s Parting Shot

by LAURA CARLSEN

The rupture of diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Colombia after a special session of the 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, since being denied a constitutional amendment to run for a third term. His successor, Juan Manuel Santos, took 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 represents Uribe’s Party of the U and had his support in the elections. Why would the president seek out a diplomatic crisis on the eve of his inauguration? By precipitating 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 a confrontation that has 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 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, suggesting that if any bilateral issue could be the subject of a special session, equal treatment would include calling for an investigative delegation to 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, President 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” and alleged that U.S. and Colombian pressure had forced the issue into a confrontation on the OAS floor, while thanking the ambassadors who had cautioned against using the multilateral forum for airing Colombia’s complaints.

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.

“I told him (OAS Secretary general Jose Insulza) that the issue should not be discussed in such a precipitous manner, but now let’s change ‘precipitous’ for ‘irresponsible’. This is the result of not paying attention to what is going on in the region”, Patiño said, adding that Insulza was warned that the session could lead to the severing of diplomatic relations and failed to do his duty in avoiding that outcome.

OAS Secretary General 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. 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.”

Another Defining Moment for U.S. Foreign Policy

At the special session, U.S. Ambassador Carmen Lomellin 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 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, the spokesperson 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 the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), without the influence of the United States. It proclaimed South America a “region of peace” and affirmed that problems between countries should be dealt with first bilaterally. UNASUR representatives met to discuss the matter but failed to arrive at a consensus solution. Members have now called for a presidential summit of UNASUR members to take up the matter, reflecting how important the issue is for the region.

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 strong incentives to do so. Although an offensive posture toward Chavez has served to cement relations with the U.S. and rally Colombian voters around the “democratic security” strategy and the U.S. base agreement, it is turning into a disaster for the economy. The Colombian government recently reported that Colombian exports to Venezuela fell 71% 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 Chavez.” Noriega concludes that the U.S. should support the “gambit” by backing the outgoing president in his allegations against Venezuela.

A U.S.-Colombian offensive against Venezuela at the moment of political transition presents a huge threat to regional stability. Uribe has consistently relied on the visceral response of the international right, forces within the U.S. government 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. Obviously, the vast majority of FARC, ELN and rightwing paramilitary forces declared “terrorist”, operate within Colombia.

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 Upshot

The coming weeks will show how this drama plays out. Instead 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 with the broader view of promoting peace talks to end the conflict in Colombia.

The rupture with Venezuela 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 toward 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 U.S. 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.

If the call for a peace plan in Colombia finds support in Latin America and within the new Santos government, the U.S. will have to define whether it lends its full support to peace efforts or continues the military strategies of Plan Colombia. In addition to Venezuela, Brazil and UNASUR (under the leadership of Nestor Kirchner) are 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, indicating his opposition to a peace plan before a specific plan is even on the table.

“When the terrorist snake feels it is being suffocated, then it asks for peace processes, to take oxygen and come back to poison again,” he stated.

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 clearly can be no progress toward peace. Few people believe that a military clash between the two nations is imminent. But the situation can worsen short of war. The U.S. military continues to expand its presence in Colombian territory as U.S. defense companies receive juicy contracts and U.S. taxpayers foot the bill for a war-based 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. The issue is not whether to be “pro-Colombia” or “pro-Venezuela”—it is how best to reduce conflict at a critical moment.

Is the United States willing to risk regional peace and security simply to support Colombia and score points against Venezuela?

LAURA CARLSEN is director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City. She can be reached at: (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org).