LESS THAN MEETS THE EYE: Venezuela and Colombia at the UNASUR meeting.

LESS THAN MEETS THE EYE: Venezuela and Colombia at the UNASUR meeting.

Gerard Coffey

Quito 02 August 2010

The headlines in the Quito’s major newspaper said it was all a failure. According to the daily El Comercio, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño was responsible for the lack of success in reconciling Colombia and Venezuela over the supposed presence of Colombian guerrillas in the latter’s territory. But who’s kidding who? There was never much hope, and this fact was widely accepted beforehand, that everyone would come out smiling from the meeting of the UNASUR foreign ministers held in the Quito on Thursday of last week (29th July). Despite the accusations that Venezuela reneged on a joint declaration, no agreement, or softening of positions, was ever likely to be reached before the August 7th inauguration of the Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president elect. Besides, the Colombian delegation was not looking for reconciliation.

Agreement or not, the meeting had its value. The mere fact that the gathering came so close on the heels of the meeting of the Organization of American States, shows how keenly felt is the need to provide a regional forum that does not include the United States and its seemingly perennial Canadian ally. It was of course inevitable that Colombia would first go to the wider forum where it could count on the US for support, but resolution there was even less likely than at the UNASUR meeting, which, if anything, is the more rational forum for discussing the issue and, in the long run, the one more likely to produce results. A meeting of presidents is now on the agenda.

Regarding the supposed presence of Colombian armed groups on the Venezuelan side of the border, and the support that the Venezuela government supposedly gives them, it seems highly likely  that the guerrilla are in Venezuela . The border is long and easily crossed  – just ask the US what that means  – and guerrilla movements are, if nothing else, very good at undercover movement. But making the leap from a probable presence to implying that Chavez and his government both know where they are, and is conscious of their movements, is going too far.  Ideologically the Venezuelan president may have sympathies with the guerrilla; don’t they, at least officially, stand for the same sorts of social goals?  But that’s a far cry from active support, and meanwhile Chavez has a country to defend. That is his clear priority. He called for the FARC to disarm around the time of the Colombian forces attack on their base in Ecuador, and has now done it again.

How much Chavez and his people really think a US intervention is likely, and how much the threat is useful as internal propaganda in the midst of an evidently serious economic downturn[i] is anyone’s guess. The threat is conceivable enough to make it a believable. The seven Colombian bases recently handed over to the US make it seem a legitimate fear, although in the long run the US isn’t likely to be that concerned about Venezuela.  The Obama administration is highly unlikely to make that sort of move as long as the oil keeps flowing, and as long as Chavez, aided by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, doesn’t try too hard to export his political model to any other Central American countries. And the Honduras affair seems to have sent out a clear message regarding that possibility. In any case, the major long term concern for the US is not Venezuela, but Brasil, with its increasing economic clout, its Amazon resources and its so-called sub imperial pretensions;  Washington noses were definitely put out of joint by the recent Brasilian efforts to mediate an end the US – Iranian nuclear dispute.

Whatever the geopolitical implications, the Colombian ‘proof’ of guerrilla presence in Venezuela is hardly convincing, something that has not escaped the notice of all Colombians[ii] , and could easily be a mock up, as the Venezuelan government has already claimed[iii].  But that is not the point. The major concern is why the issue was raised at all, especially only a few weeks before Alvaro Uribe’s Presidential term ends.  Lula da Silva, the Brasilian President has suggested  that the whole thing is nothing more than a personal spat. But that is hard to believe. Even harder to believe is that Lula himself believes it. There is little doubt about the level of about animosity between Uribe and Chavez, but there is clearly more to this than fragile egos and delicate feelings.

Two possibilities come to mind. The first is that this is an attempt by Uribe and his US allies to put Juan Manuel Santos in a policy straightjacket, as it were, by denying him the option of relegating the issue of Chavez and the guerrilla to a secondary plane. Uribe’s  comments about not giving way to a mellifluous and slippery (baboso) style of diplomacy, combined with his recent exhortations to the Colombian military to take the fight with the guerrilla to the last possible moment, suggest that  there is some truth to the assertion.

The other possibility is that the strategy is to put Chavez in a straightjacket. To turn his discourse about the American threat against him, using it to force him choose between one side and the other: the guerrilla or the country. It is that simple. As the threat of US intervention is somewhat credible and is a central theme of the Chavez government US, the issue is internally sensitive, particularly in light of the country’s upcoming legislative elections.

The strategy employed by the Colombians and the US is not new. It worked in the Ecuadorian case, where it was not necessary to prove that the Ecuadorian Government was involved with the FARC: the mere accusation was enough. The burden of proof was placed on the Correa regime. Ecuador was forced to act to prove it’s innocence, reinforcing the northern border to protect itself from military infiltrations any kind, and in the process doing exactly what the US , and Colombia wanted: making it more difficult for the FARC to cross the frontier.

In this latest case the cost for Colombia, and the particularly the US, of forcing Venezuela into a similar type of situation is much lower than it was in Ecuador. There Colombia paid a relatively high price in the diplomatic arena for its attack on the territory another sovereign nation. This time most of the work has already been done, the attack on Ecuadorian territory and the installation of the US bases[iv] have served to set the stage, and an all out verbal attack such as the one launched by Uribe will likely suffice to produce a similar result.

[i] Despite the lack of reliable figures due to reporting bias on all sides, it appears that the Venezuelan economy will be the only Latin American economy not to grow in 2010.

[ii] Alfredo Molano Bravo, Hipótesis de trabajo. Diario El Espectador, Bogotá, 01 August 2010.

[iii] Pruebas sobre presencia guerrillera en Venezuela son falsas, dice Fiscal de ese país. El Espectador 01 August 2010.

[iv] The matter of the constitutionality of the agreement is now before the courts, but it would be a surprise if the judges did not find in favour of the government position.