Colombia Kicks Over the Negotiating Table

Is President Álvaro Uribe trying to prevent his successor from making peace with Venezuela?

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.

In fact, the real threat to the region comes from Washington, not Caracas. The Costa Rican Congress recently authorized a massive 46 U.S. warships and 7,000 Marines to enter the country for supposed humanitarian and anti-drug trafficking operations between now and December 31, raising concerns that the Obama administration is needlessly militarizing the region. Just months ago, the administration signed a controversial defense agreement with Colombia that gave U.S. troops and intelligence officials access to seven bases there. The bases are all located in Colombia's east, close to the Venezuelan border. Caracas's alleged support for Colombian insurgents has been used to justify such military expansions in the past, and this new round of claims may well do so again.

Venezuela had little choice but to break off relations with Uribe after these latest accusations. Sadly, this is just the latest in a string of Colombian attempts to destabilize the region. In March 2008, Colombian forces illegally entered Ecuadorean territory where FARC members were again alleged to be hiding. The signing of the U.S.-Colombia defense agreement has added to the regional tension.

As Chávez stated, the door remains open for a move towards normalized relations with Santos. But this requires that Latin America finally have a serious discussion about the regional repercussions of Colombia's conflict, especially the heightened militarism of the Uribe government with U.S. support. Is the collateral damage suffered by the region worth the security gains in Colombia's cities? Are these gains even sustainable? What is the real security situation in the rural areas of Colombia? What are the regional consequences of Colombia's humanitarian crisis? Is peace a realistic possibility?

Venezuela has insisted that a political approach to dealing with the insurgency is necessary to truly disentangle the multilayered Colombian conflict. On July 23, Chávez again called on the Colombian insurgent group FARC to reconsider its armed strategy. Only a comprehensive political solution with regional participation will help end the terrible conflict suffered by our sister nation and alleviate pressure on the border area. These points form the basis of the Venezuelan peace plan presented to the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) in Quito Thursday.

Relations between Venezuela and Colombia have always been complex and dynamic, but both countries have always found ways to peacefully coexist and cooperate. Chávez has made a commitment to commerce between the two countries -- and trade reached historic highs before it was cut off last year in protest of Uribe's aggressive actions. He has also intensely worked to promote peace in Colombia. But Hoyos's performance at the OAS was a last-ditch, desperate attempt to prevent any rapprochement between our two governments. Even more worrying, Uribe has sought to limit Santos's options once he assumes the presidency -- an attempt to poison future waters. In short, the outgoing president knocked over the table, instead of sitting at it and talking honestly with a neighbor.



What's Behind the Colombia-Venezuela Battle Royale

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is once again accusing Colombia and the U.S. government of plotting to topple him. But it's really Chávez who poses a threat to peace in the region.

Colombia and Venezuela squared off Thursday in Quito, Ecuador, at an emergency meeting of the foreign ministers of the Union of South American States (Unasur), a recently created regional political and security association. The meeting was called by Ecuador, and was to be chaired by Unasur Secretary General Nestor Kirchner, the former president of Argentina, as the regional players attempt to defuse what has become a dangerous and growing crisis. However, it appears that many Latin American states are trying to keep their distance from this dispute: Several countries were represented by their deputy foreign ministers, and Kirchner himself pulled out at the last minute.

This crisis began when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez  broke diplomatic relations with Colombia on July 22, immediately after Colombia's ambassador to the Organization of American States, Alfonso Hoyos, charged that the Chávez government is allowing more than 1,500 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Marxist guerrilla group better known as the FARC, to live unmolested in 87 clandestine camps in Venezuelan territory.

Chávez denied Colombia's accusations, and dismissed Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who leaves office on August 7, as a "mafioso and liar." Chávez depicted Venezuela as the "victim" of an international conspiracy orchestrated by the Colombian and U.S. governments, claiming that the United States is planning a military invasion of Venezuela, via Colombia, with the purpose of killing him, toppling his socialist regime, and seizing his country's oil and gas resources.

Chávez expected to trump Colombia at the Unasur meeting by organizing a regional coalition to compel Colombia to accept Venezuela's "peace plan" for the country. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has been meeting his Unasur counterparts in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, and others to drum up support for this measure. In reality, Chávez wants the Colombian government to open peace negotiations with the FARC, hoping to distract international attention from Venezuela's active collaboration with the militant group.

Uribe, however, has plans of his own. On July 27, he shot down Venezuela's suggestions, arguing that legitimate democratic governments should never negotiate with narco-terrorists. The FARC is a criminal organization that kills and kidnaps innocent people, recruits children by force, manufactures bombs and land mines, and engages in extortion, drug trafficking and arms smuggling, he added. (He also denied that his country had any plans to invade Venezuela.)

Uribe also said that Colombia will continue to press Venezuela in all venues, including Unasur, to take immediate action to detain or destroy FARC forces in Venezuelan territory. In line with this policy, he demanded that Venezuela comply with its obligations and responsibilities under international law and numerous treaties to destroy any narco-terrorist forces inside its national territory.

Furthermore, the Colombian government has called on the OAS and Unasur to physically verify Colombia's charges against the Chávez government within 30 days -- no later than August 22 -- by sending international teams of experts to inspect the locations of the 87 FARC camps in Venezuela.

Finally, Uribe has announced that Colombia is prepared to cooperate immediately with the judicial authorities of other Latin American states to battle the FARC's presence in those countries. According to Colombia, the group is present in seven countries besides Venezuela and Colombia.

Of course, Chávez will seek to block Colombia's proposals at every turn. Though the Venezuelan strongman denies it, the truth of the matter is that he has been allied with the group since 1995. For all Chávez's claims that the Colombian government is trying to start a war with its eastern neighbor, the real aggressor in this relationship has always been the Venezuelan president.

The FARC has operated freely in Venezuela since Chávez took power in February 1999, but it did not establish a permanent presence in Venezuelan territory until 2003. The intelligence disclosed by Ambassador Hoyos charges that the FARC has launched more than 60 separate attacks against targets in Colombia from its camps in Venezuelan territory since 2007.

According to Hoyos, the FARC is also using its camps to train citizens of Venezuela and seven other countries in guerrilla warfare, bomb-making, kidnapping and drug trafficking. Top FARC leaders and militants in Venezuelan territory also receive official protection, false Venezuelan identity papers, weapons, transportation and other benefits from officials of Venezuela's armed forces and intelligence services, he alleged.

Chávez claims that he broke diplomatic relations with Colombia for reasons of "national dignity." But if Colombia were making false accusations against Venezuela, the obvious choice would be to invite OAS observers to rebut Colombia's lies. Instead, by breaking ties with Bogotá and charging that Venezuela is the victim of an international conspiracy, Chávez chose his usual route of bluster and threats over transparency.

Don't expect Colombia to back down. The country's incoming president, Juan Manuel Santos, will continue the international diplomatic offensive against the Chávez government that his precessor launched at the OAS.

Colombian officials have a few strong options. They have said that Bogotá could bring charges against Chávez's government at the International Criminal Court, since the documented FARC attacks on Colombia launched from Venezuela resulted in the deaths of many innocent civilians. Colombia could also take its case to the U.N. Security Council. There is no doubt that the Chávez regime is violating more than a dozen OAS and U.N. resolutions and treaties that call on states to support democracy, battle international drug traffickers and terrorists, and avoid interfering in the affairs of other countries.

Will Colombia's strategy work? Experience has taught the country's leaders that the FARC and its supporters never negotiate in good faith, and the best defense against them is a robust and sustained military and diplomatic campaign.

This conflict is not a normal border dispute between two peaceful neighbors. Under Chávez's increasingly authoritarian regime, Venezuela has become a supporter of terrorists and a growing threat to its neighbors. Colombia is an embattled but thriving democracy that has made great strides in respect for human rights and freedom. Colombians deserves the support of the democratic nations of this hemisphere.

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