By BB Sanford
On July 15, 2010, Colombia filed a formal complaint with the Organization of American States (OAS) accusing neighboring Venezuela of harboring upwards of 1,500 FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) fighters as well as ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) rebels. Colombia’s Defense Minister, Gabriel Silva Luján, indicated that Colombia possessed evidence supposedly proving the presence of the insurgents on the Venezuelan side of the boarder. The accusations were made soon after Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president-elect, revealed his desire to normalize relations with Venezuela.
The previous Colombian president, strongman Álvaro Uribe, brought Bogota’s concerns directly to the OAS, bypassing all bilateral talks with Caracas. Through multilateral diplomacy, the OAS aims to defuse regional tensions; however, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez cut off all diplomatic ties with Colombia once the meeting of the regional body terminated. With Colombia’s livelihood already heavily impacted by long disintegrating ties with Venezuela, many anticipate further degenerated economic lifelines between the two countries.
Specialists have cautioned Colombia to be wary of its actions after its 2008 bombing of a jungle area on Ecuador’s side of the border when Bogotá unleashed one of its special military units to attack a small group of FARC insurgents encamped there. The Colombian Minister of Defense at the time of the attack, and now President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, still has a warrant for his arrest if he sets foot in Ecuador. Although they falsely deny the violations, paramilitaries in Colombia previously have been found responsible for dressing up innocent and completely uninvolved Colombian civilians as FARC members and transporting them into Ecuador, where they were suddenly gunned down by military units. Human Rights Watch wrote, “Under pressure to demonstrate results, army members apparently take civilians from their homes or workplaces, kill them, and then dress them up to claim they were combatants killed in actions.” Investigations of thousands of similar cases date back to mid-2003, placing more suspicion on Colombia’s charges against Venezuela.
Ecuador pressured Francisco Proaño, the Ecuadorian Ambassador and this month’s president of the Permanent Council of the OAS, who was asked by Quito to postpone the special meeting called to deal with the Venezuela-Colombia issue. This stalling tactic is frequently used by the OAS, and was confirmed by a telephone conversation with a group of regional journalists. Proaño, however, decided to resign late on Tuesday, July 19, 2010, the day before the scheduled meeting, not wanting to compromise his integrity. Proaño’s replacement is Joaquin Maza, who hails from El Salvador. The meeting went on as planned.
During the OAS meeting, ten videos, twelve testimonies, and over twenty photographs were used in presenting evidence of Venezuela harboring FARC and ELN rebels. Maps and coordinates of some of the alleged FARC and ELN camps hiding in the Venezuelan jungle were also brought forward. The OAS meeting convened Thursday, July 22, 2010, in Washington D.C., and lasted about six hours. The OAS assembled, ready to mediate, but Secretary General José Miguel Insulza reminded the audience of some hard realities: “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.”
Permanent Representative of Venezuela to the OAS, Ambassador Roy Chaderton, denied that the evidence presented by Colombia was authentic and valid. He also argued that Colombia’s decision to bring its accusations directly to the OAS, rather than to Venezuela itself, was inappropriate. Chaderton preferred dialogue between the two countries, as do many other OAS leaders. Regardless of these comments, Chaderton remarked, “You cannot imagine how much we Colombians and Venezuelans have in common,” expressing hope for a positive, peaceful resolution.
Chávez Denies Everything
On July 22, 2010, the same day as the controversial OAS meeting, Venezuela officially severed all ties with Colombia, a move Venezuela has taken several times before. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez firmly said, “Standing on our dignity, we have to break off diplomatic relations with the fraternal Republic of Colombia.”
At this point, a coalition of human rights, social justice, and civil society organizations, along with TransAfrica Forum, sent a letter addressed to Secretary General José Miguel Insulza:
In recent days, President Uribe has once again chosen to provoke a neighbor – in this case Venezuela– rather than engage in much needed dialogue. With his government’s decision to dust off oft-repeated accusations against the Chávez government at a crucial moment of transition that offers a unique opportunity for putting relations with Venezuela on a new path, Uribe has once again demonstrated that he prefers conflict to dialogue.
Strong feelings of disappointment and troubled reactions from the coalition to Uribe’s decision forced a show down by several countries, not just Venezuela alone.
In March, a Spanish judge, Eloy Valasco, accused Venezuela of facilitating FARC’s deployment on Venezuelan soil as well as members of the Basque terrorist group (ETA). Concerning the allegations, the judge said, “There is evidence in this case which shows the Venezuelan government’s co-operation in the illegal association between F[ARC] and E[TA].” Chávez, again, denied all charges and Venezuela lashed out against Velasco for referring to Chávez in “a disrespectful fashion.”
The State Department has now called for “greater interaction, cooperation, and dialogue between Colombia and Venezuela to reduce those tensions and increase mutual cooperation.” This was a wise move on Washington’s part, but Chávez firmly rejected all of these accusations and then cut all connections with Colombia, it seems that not much would be done on the matter, given that Uribe’s term would end on August 7, when Juan Manuel Santos would assume office.
Santos’ First Test
Tight bonds between Colombia and the U.S. already exist due to strong military and diplomatic links between the two countries. On the other hand, Venezuela continually expresses anti-U.S. sentiments. In 2009, 15,000 Venezuelan troops were sent to the country’s borders after the U.S.-Colombia deal on access to Colombia’s military bases was completed. With U.S. troops located close to Chávez’ borders, his outspoken opinions served to stoke the tension between both Venezuela and Colombia as well as between Venezuela and the U.S. Because Uribe’s stay in office was only until early August, his motives remain suspect.
The previously mentioned coalition letter signed by the NGOs then asked President-elect Santos to relate to the region, particularly to Venezuela, in order to contain the crisis: “It is our hope, both for Colombia and for the future stability of the region, that once in office Mr. Santos will seek to significantly revise the harmful security policies put in place by President Uribe and work in earnest to rebuild relations with the rest of the region.” Hopes for the future president to resolve the conflict are high, even though at the emergency summit of UNASUR on July 29, no new action was taken. The only decision taken there called for the Colombia-Venezuela conflict to be addressed at a Presidential Summit, anticipating Santos would be willing to come and be able to rebuild relations between the two countries.
Chávez calls this conflict Santos’ “first test” as Colombia’s president: “This is your first test, Mr. Santos. Let us see if you distance yourself from Uribe’s aggression against Venezuela.” Santos has already professed his desire to repair relations with Venezuela and its president, although he made no comment on the situation of Colombia’s accusations before he took office. Santos, in fact, only responded, “Álvaro Uribe is the President of the Republic until 7 August.”
A meeting had been scheduled for Chávez and Santos on August 10. Chávez already had begun brokering negotiations by pressuring FARC and ELN to release their hostages in order to help Colombia’s new president. Chávez has expressed the desire that FARC and ELN will not use armed struggle as a means to strengthen their position. The rhetoric and tone of both presidents are now shifting dramatically, with talks of peace and cooperation flowing freely from their lips. The bond of Colombia and Venezuela that started with their shared liberator, Simon Bolívar, might be well served if both countries realize that Washington’s interest in the region comes and goes, but that Bogotá and Caracas will always be there, and that presumably, cordial relations can only well serve both sides.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate BB Sanford