War of nerves

Published : Aug 27, 2010 00:00 IST

MOTOR CYCLISTS WAIT IN long lines at a gas station in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, on the border with Colombia, on July 26. Following the allegations about guerilla bases inside Venezuela.-LA OPINION-GABRIELA OSORIO/AFP

MOTOR CYCLISTS WAIT IN long lines at a gas station in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, on the border with Colombia, on July 26. Following the allegations about guerilla bases inside Venezuela.-LA OPINION-GABRIELA OSORIO/AFP

Colombia accuses Venezuela again of harbouring left-wing guerillas on its territory, and a diplomatic row follows.

JUST as things seemed to be getting back to normal between Venezuela and Colombia, a serious diplomatic row erupted between the neighbours in July. In mid-July, the outgoing Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe, reiterated his claim that the Venezuelan government was harbouring 1,500 fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) on its territory. It was claimed that there were 85 guerilla camps in Venezuela. The allegations were made at a time when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was preparing to visit Bogota, the capital of Colombia, for the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected President, Juan Manuel Santos, in early August. Chavez described the allegations as a hoax.

Venezuela had earlier recalled its Ambassador in Bogota after Uribe had ordered a raid into Ecuador in 2008, allegedly in pursuit of FARC guerillas. Last year, Venezuela snapped many of its trade and economic links with Colombia to lodge its strong protest against the Uribe government's decision to increase substantially the number of American military bases in Colombia. Venezuela increased its troop strength along the 2,200-km border with Colombia after a series of provocations from the Colombian side. Following the latest allegations about guerilla bases inside Venezuela, the Venezuelan government has despatched additional troops to the border.

Chavez has been saying for some time that the United States is planning to launch a war against Venezuela. In a recent statement, he said Venezuela would cut off oil supplies to the U.S. should there be a military attack from Colombia. If there is any armed aggression against Venezuela from Colombia or elsewhere, promoted by the Yankee empire, we will suspend oil shipments to the U.S., even if we have to eat stones, he said. Chavez announced the snapping of diplomatic links with Colombia after Uribe presented his evidence' on the presence of rebel groups on Venezuelan territory to the Organisation of American States (OAS) in mid-July.

The Barack Obama administration, not surprisingly, was fully supportive of Uribe. Arturo Valenzuela, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, stated that the Colombian complaint to the OAS was very serious. The purported evidence was supposedly taken from a laptop captured during the raid in Ecuador in March 2008. The laptop allegedly belonged to an FARC commander, Raul Reyes, who was killed in the raid. Interpol had at the time stated that proper forensic principles had not been used in handling the seized computer. It also said that the contents of the computer had been tampered with between its seizure on March 1 and March 3, when its contents were made public.

Roy Chaderton, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS, said there was not a shred of evidence in the material that Colombia had provided. He said the Venezuelan army had inspected the locations and coordinates provided by the Colombian side and found no evidence of the alleged terrorist sites.

The region was hoping that relations between the two countries would be normalised with a new President in Bogota. But Uribe seems to be intent on nipping any such aspiration in the bud. Uribe, who wanted to run for a third term in the highest office but was denied the opportunity by the country's constitutional court, has indicated that he does not want his successor to begin with a clean slate.

Santos, who had been Colombia's Defence Minister, indicated after his resounding victory that he wanted the relations with Caracas to be repaired. He personally invited Chavez to be present at his inauguration. The person he designated for the Foreign Minister's post is Maria Angela Holguin, who was Colombia's envoy to Caracas. She had objected to Uribe giving plum diplomatic posts to his political proteges. She also said that normalising relations between the two countries would be her priority. Uribe was also not happy with the appointment of another of his critics, Camilo Restrepo, as Agriculture Minister.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil observed that the timing of Uribe's decision was strange as it occurred just a few days before the new President took office. Venezuelans are also due to vote for a new national assembly in September.

It has been observed that before every important election in Venezuela there have been concerted efforts from the enemies of the Bolivarian revolution to whip up controversies. Chavez has already faced the electorate 13 times since he got elected for the first time in 1998. During every election or plebiscite, Washington tried to stir the political pot. In March this year, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, General Douglas Fraser, testified in Congress that Venezuela did not have any verifiable links with terrorists. The U.S. has classified the FARC and the ELN as terrorist groupings. Under pressure from the U.S. State Department, he was forced to backtrack on his statement.

As Defence Minister, Santos had epitomised the hard-line policy of Uribe against the left-wing guerillas. But he seems to have realised that there cannot be a military solution to the problem that has plagued the country for around five decades. Instead of adopting a statesman-like stance befitting a lame-duck President, Uribe chose to criticise his successor for trying to practise cosmetic and hypocritical diplomacy. His open criticism was followed by the release of tapes showing senior FARC commanders in a camp allegedly 23 km inside Venezuelan territory. After the release of the tapes, the current Defence Minister, Gabriel Silva, articulated clearly the views of Uribe, his political master. He said the concerns about the guerillas being given protection could be forgotten in the climate of rapprochement with Venezuela's government.

Washington was quick to support the assertions of Uribe. This is not surprising, as Uribe has been its most obedient ally in the region. His government was the recipient of $6 billion in aid from the U.S. However, Uribe did not get the support of other right-wing governments in Latin America.

Left-wing leaders such as Bolivian President Evo Morales were scathing in their criticism of Uribe. Morales described Uribe as a loyal representative of the U.S. government, with its military bases in Colombia designed to provoke a war between Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Chavez was careful in his response to the new accusations, saying that they were a result of the power struggle between Uribe and the new group around Santos. At the same time, he cautioned his countrymen and the region that there was a real threat of a U.S.-led attack. There are seven U.S. bases in Colombia, Aruba and Curacao, just a few kilometres from the Venezuelan border. There are U.S. bases in nearby Honduras and El Salvador, too. Recently, the right-wing government in Costa Rica gave permission for 46 U.S. warships and 7,000 U.S. marines to enter its territory. In the military bases agreement signed last year between the U.S. and Colombia, the Palanquero base was to be used for full spectrum operations in South America and to combat the threat from anti-American governments in the region.

The Venezuelan government is not denying that there have been incursions into its territory by guerillas fleeing the Colombian army and paramilitaries. The OAS Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza, told CNN that the guerrillas come and go, and it is quite difficult to ask just one country to control the border. Uribe says that he doesn't know why Venezuela doesn't detain the guerillas, but the truth is that Colombia can't control them either.

Venezuela has on previous occasions extradited guerillas to Colombia. But the fact is that many of the right-wing paramilitaries have also infiltrated the border from where they are engaged in the profitable drug trade. They have also been implicated in plots to assassinate the President and topple the government of Venezuela. Declassified Pentagon documents have revealed that the U.S. administration was well aware of their presence in Venezuela in 2003 but chose to focus on the presence of left-wing rebels who keep criss-crossing the porous and thinly populated border between the two countries. Many commentators have also pointed out that the U.S. has a well-fortified border with Mexico but this has not prevented the infiltration of arms and drug smugglers.

The Latin American countries want their regional bloc, the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), to solve the problem between Colombia and Venezuela. Many Latin American countries do not trust the OAS, given the fact that the U.S. and Canada are its members.

Unasur leaders have already talked to the parties involved. Its Secretary-General, Nestor Kirchner, the former Argentine President, has met Santos. Santos seems to have indicated that his priority is to repair the relations with Venezuela.

The breakdown in relations has already had a severe impact on Colombia's economy. Venezuela is the biggest market for Colombian products. Venezuela, too, is dependent on its neighbour for food supplies and electricity. It is a win-win situation for both countries if they coexist peacefully, but political differences are bound to remain as the leaderships of the two countries pursue diametrically opposite ideologies.

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