When Luis Alfonso Hoyos walked into a regional meeting on Thursday, July 22, he would have done well to remember that -- ever since U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the alleged evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the U.N. Security Council in 2003 -- the standards for dramatic "intelligence" revelations have gone up. Simply showing a few maps and pictures doesn't cut it anymore, much less when the implications are as serious as what Hoyos was arguing: that Venezuela has been supporting Colombian insurgent groups.
But Hoyos, Colombia's ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), went ahead with his presentation regardless. He spoke for close to two hours on the merits of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's war on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Meanwhile, he accused Venezuela of harboring the two groups. When it was all said and done, he didn't prove much more than the fact that Uribe is desperately trying to place obstacles in front of a possible rapprochement between the two neighboring countries.
On its face, Colombia's supposed "evidence" was laughable, just as it has been on previous occasions when similar accusations have been made. Hoyos showed pictures of FARC insurgents, claiming that they were in camps deep in Venezuelan territory. The proof? A stray Venezuelan flag and a bottle of Venezuelan beer -- hardly incontrovertible geographic evidence. He then showed Google map locations of alleged FARC encampments on Venezuela's side of the border. But again, Hoyos failed to show that FARC or ELN insurgents were actually there, or that they had ever been there. Most importantly, he had no concrete evidence that their supposed presence was met with the approval of the highest reaches of the Venezuelan government.
Venezuela has never denied that the 1,400-mile-long border it shares with Colombia is porous and difficult to secure. Over the course of Colombia's six-decade-long internal conflict, refugees, criminals, and yes, insurgents, have all crossed back and forth between the two countries, leaving Venezuelan officials with the unenviable task of not only protecting Colombians fleeing from violence but also trying to stem the flow of drugs and contraband. That members of FARC and ELN -- as well as right-wing paramilitaries -- cross the border isn't a shock to anyone. Neither is it proof that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is opening the country's doors to them. Perhaps OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said it best: "Uribe says he doesn't know why Venezuela doesn't detain the guerrillas, but the truth is that Colombia can't control them either."
All this begs the question: Lacking concrete evidence, why would Bogotá choose this moment -- just weeks before the Aug. 7 inauguration of a new Colombian president -- to accuse its neighbor of foul play?
That's the true mystery, not where the insurgents are. Since Juan Manuel Santos was elected as Uribe's successor in late June, both he and the Venezuelan government have expressed their willingness to open discussions on the normalization of bilateral relations. But the timing of Uribe's accusations seems to indicate that the outgoing president is looking to tie his successor's hands -- especially with regard to Venezuela.
There's a broader view to consider, too. In recent months, U.S. President Barack Obama indicated that he would submit a long-stalled free trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia to the U.S. Senate for consideration. As the George W. Bush administration proved, there's no better way to sell something to Congress than by stoking fear. (That's exactly how Bush pushed through the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005: by arguing that Venezuela was a regional threat.) Now, the Obama administration may be doing the same. Colombia's newest claims also conveniently serve to distract from concerns about the country's human rights record, which have been a factor in the stalling of the FTA.