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.

At its face value, 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.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.

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 indicatedthat 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 situationin 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.

Bernardo Álvarez is Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States.