Venezuela – Colombia: To Washington’s Chagrin, Economics Bridge Ideological Divide

Recent high-level meetings between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe demonstrate each country’s commitment towards improving economic cooperation between the two neighbors. With the State Department stewardship now passing to Bush confidante and echo Condoleezza Rice, Washington likely will continue to emerge as an even more disruptive force towards Venezuela – Colombia relations than before.

• Illusionary charges, such as the Colombian Defense Minister’s allegation that the FARC had a plan in place to assassinate President Bush during his recent visit to Cartagena, will accompany White House strategy to augment its militarized policies in the region.

• Recent high-level meetings between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the latest occurring in Cartagena on November 9, demonstrate each country’s commitment towards improving economic cooperation between the two neighbors.

• Despite the clear and deep ideological divide that exists between the two governments, the blame for their past disjointed relations lies with extremist elements in both countries, as well as a streak of inflammatory rhetoric emanating from Washington.

• The burgeoning economic alliance between Caracas and Bogotá underline Chavez’s and Uribe’s pragmatic belief that the benefits resulting from increased trade and investment between the two countries outweigh the worth of the salvos of hostile rhetoric coming from hardliners in each of the three countries.

• Economic realities and prevailing political winds blowing through the continent, and not their personal standing with Washington, are likely to determine whether both presidents will win a second term.

• With the State Department stewardship now passing to Bush confidante and echo Condoleezza Rice, Washington likely will continue to emerge as an even more disruptive force towards Venezuela – Colombia relations than before. Washington can be counted on to attempt to further isolate the Chavez government and provide additional funding for the increased militarization of Uribe’s Plan Colombia.

In a meeting that underscored the slow mending of previously hostile relations between Venezuela and Colombia, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez flew to Cartagena, Colombia on November 9 to hold substantive talks with his counterpart, President Alvaro Uribe. The primary focus of this summit was to improve economic cooperation and amplify communications between the two countries, but a significant portion of the discussion was also devoted to the contentious issue of security along their shared 1,400-mile border. After the meeting, official statements issued by both sides emphasized the positive nature of the talks and the two presidents’ commitment to increase the frequency of such summit conferences, and also revealed a level of mutual respect not readily evident in relations between Caracas and Bogotá a mere few months ago.

Having soundly defeated an attempt by his political opposition to have him removed from office in an August 15 recall referendum, Chávez solidified support for his self-described Bolivarian Revolution in last month’s Venezuelan regional elections, with pro-government candidates winning all but two of the country’s 23 governorships. As Chávez is assured of remaining as president at least until 2007, he appears ready to prioritize improving the economy over political squabbling, particularly in regard to Venezuela’s relations with Colombia. For his part, Uribe is diverging from the obsessively warrior line being followed by his strongest international ally and sponsor, the Bush administration, by taking conciliatory steps in order to engage in confidence-building measures between the two neighbors. Although incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statements to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on October 23 indicate that during Bush’s second term Washington’s sallies against Venezuela will continue unabated, Uribe understands that in order to maintain current economic growth, it behooves him to turn towards Venezuela, Colombia’s closest and most natural trading partner. Following through on this reengagement will demonstrate a highly commendable level of political maturity on the part of both Uribe and Chávez that, if present, should allow them to proceed with initiatives that respond solely to their respective country’s national interests, without further interference from extremist elements from within or abroad.

Strange Bedfellows
What makes the normalization of bilateral ties between Caracas and Bogotá surprising is that each government stands on the opposite end of Washington’s skewed geopolitical view of Latin America. As arguably the most leftist and rightist governments in the region, these neighbors have chronically exchanged contentious barbs over the last several years that echoed Washington’s stark view of the region. That Colombia is the third highest recipient of U.S. aid in the world (on November 22 President Bush promised to add to the 3.3 billion in aid Colombia has received since 2000) and that the Bush administration views Chávez as the second most dangerous figure in the region (after Fidel Castro), has had a severely detrimental effect on Venezuela – Colombia bilateral links.

Hugo Chávez has sustained his controversial presidency through increased social spending and inflammatory attacks on both his domestic opponents and his Washington-based detractors. He has established close links with Fidel Castro as well as a series of left-of-center politicians throughout South America, particularly Brazil’s President Lula da Silva. The populist Venezuelan leader has also reallocated revenues from the state-owned petroleum company (PDVSA) towards welfare programs aimed at addressing the country’s widespread social ills, earning strong support from Venezuela’s impoverished majority.

Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe, in contrast, has been a stalwart supporter of Washington’s Latin America agenda, backing the White House’s efforts to advance its free trade policies throughout the region, while attempting to clamp down on the internal forces of instability that have plagued the country for decades. Gaining strong domestic support for his tough approach towards guerrillas, the archly conservative Colombian president clearly has sufficient popular and legislative support to seek another presidential term in 2006. This unprecedented event in the country’s political history required an amendment to the country’s constitution, which was finally approved in the eighth and final debate before Congress on November 30.

At Each Others’ Throats
Earlier this year, controversy over a possible presidential recall referendum in Venezuela, which was strongly endorsed by Washington officials as a last attempt at bloodless regime change, tainted all communication between the two South American countries. Characteristic of the bad blood that existed between Venezuela and Colombia, on April 13 the Colombian Senate approved Resolution 249 that condemned Chavez’s “dictatorial regime” and called for the Organization of American States (OAS) to apply the Interamerican Democratic Charter to Venezuela. An application of the OAS’s Democratic Charter would be the first step towards proceedings to have Venezuela suspended from the hemispheric organization. Aside from a clarifying statement from the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Relations distancing Uribe from the legislative resolution, the President remained conspicuously silent throughout the ensuing controversy. Uribe was wise to never officially take sides during the August 15 recall referendum, but a number of his Bogotá surrogates, who could easily have been silenced if the President had so desired, were clear in their opposition to a Chávez victory. An April 17 CIA Senior Executive Intelligence Brief obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Eva Golinger, a Long Island attorney, notes that following the April 2002 coup that momentarily removed Chávez from power, “the Colombian Foreign Minister…had verbally embraced” his extra-constitutional successor, Pedro Carmona, and that now “some Colombian officials publicly have expressed concern about future Venezuelan retribution against Colombian interests.”

A central argument behind attempts to destabilize the Chávez government has been the allegation that his government provides financial and logistical support for Colombia’s leftist insurgents, or that, at the very least, it turns a blind eye to their use of Venezuelan territory as a refuge from Colombian military operations. Despite the lack of a credible evidentiary basis for these charges, numerous government officials in Washington and Bogotá, as well as right-wing Miami-based Cuban and Venezuelan expatriates have encouraged the dissemination of such accusations to justify calls to have Chávez removed from office by any means necessary.

At one point, relations between Colombia and Venezuela deteriorated to such a marked degree that in a May 3 radio broadcast of Chávez’s weekly program Aló Presidente, the Venezuelan leader stated that the U.S. might be considering an invasion of Venezuela from Colombian territory. Some members of Uribe’s opposition, such as Representative Gustavo Petro, also warned that the Bush White House appeared to be pushing Colombia into a war with its neighbor. These charges followed U.S. backing for Colombia’s unrealized plans to purchase 40 Spanish Amx-30 tanks, a series of incursions by Colombian paramilitary forces into Venezuelan territory, and Chávez’s pledge to modernize the Venezuelan armed forces. The cumulative effect of these actions resulted in increased militarization along their shared border and a concomitant rise in tensions between the two governments. A war between Colombia and Venezuela never approached the realm of possibility, but the mere fact that this topic was openly discussed by journalists, analysts and politicians speaks volumes on how testy matters between the two countries had become.

Smoke and Mirrors
It is undeniable that some very real differences exist between Caracas and Bogotá, particularly regarding the state’s role in encouraging economic and social development. These divergences have occasionally resulted in intense friction and, in some cases, even boiled over into outright skirmishes between the two. However, the role played by certain media outlets along with hawkish policymakers in Venezuela, Colombia and the U.S. in fueling distrust and animosity between these two governments is difficult to overstate. In a conversation with COHA, Venezuela’s ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera addressed this topic, explaining, “There are influential sectors in [Venezuela, Colombia and the U.S.] that wish to disrupt President Chávez’s government and do not want Venezuela and Colombia to cooperate. According to their perverse logic, FARC is a terrorist group, President Chávez supposedly supports FARC and so [President Chávez] is also a terrorist.”

Hardliners in all three countries have their own reasons for propagating this belief. In Venezuela, the opposition, comprised mainly of upper-middle class sectors and business and political elites, has pursued any and all strategies to achieve the ultimate goal of upending Chávez’s populist regime, including an attempted coup, spearheading a two month-long national strike, a long and devastating work stoppage called against PDVSA, and last August’s unsuccessful recall referendum. At each phase, Chávez’s foes have carefully cultivated alliances with like-minded counterparts in Colombia and the United States, hoping to find ways to further isolate Caracas.

Colombian conservatives, unwilling to accept, never mind collaborate with, a mobilized left-leaning government on its eastern border, have enthusiastically offered their support to prompting mischief between the two neighbors. Reams of articles and editorials allegedly furnishing unequivocal evidence of Chávez’s friendly ties with the FARC and the ELN are frequently given front-page status, while corrections, retractions and clarifications are virtually ignored. In one such example of yellow journalism, where a public outcry necessitated an immediate correction, on September 3, 2003, Ricardo Santamaría, then director of the Colombia’s mainstream daily El Espectador, was dismissed after the newspaper had published an interview with a former Venezuelan military officer who claimed to have piloted FARC leaders to meet with Chávez. The information reported on by El Espectador was later discredited, but episodes like this constantly threaten to derail efforts by Venezuelan and Colombian authorities to move ahead on a more constructive path with diplomatic and economic cooperation plans.

Sensationalist and unsubstantiated charges are not limited solely to media outlets and political pundits, as demonstrated by an incident following President Bush’s visit to Colombia on November 22. According to newly appointed Colombian Defense Minister Jorge Uribe, informants reported that the FARC had instructed its militants to “assassinate President Bush” during his stay in Cartagena. However, following a statement on November 29 by Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt, in which he clarified that in regards to such a plot “there [was] nothing specific,” Uribe backtracked and had a spokesman indicate that the Defense Minister had either misspoken or been misunderstood. In this particular case, neither Chávez nor his supporters were implicated in the supposed plot, but it would not be a stretch to expect such ties to eventually have been “exposed” by interested parties if the controversy surrounding Minister Uribe’s comments had not been promptly squashed by Colombian authorities. The recurring nature of such outlandish and, in some cases, completely specious allegations, is a poison that opportunistic and extremist elements will continue to take advantage of to the detriment of Colombia – Venezuela ties, until a more professional attitude is instituted among both journalists and politicians.

In Washington, the Bush administration’s adoption of a “with us or against us” foreign policy credo assures that any number of White House insiders will do almost anything to topple a strong populist government with ties to Castro’s Cuba and a prejudicial attitude regarding free trade (from a U.S. perspective). Venezuela’s position as the fourth largest provider of foreign oil to the U.S. explains why Pentagon neo-conservatives see Chávez as a prime threat to national security. This position is unlikely to change during Bush’s second term in office. Newly nominated Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a vocal stalwart of the Bush administration’s narrow militarized agenda for the region, was quoted by the Pittsburg Tribune-Review on Oct 23 as stating, “I think [Chávez] is a real problem. I think he will continue to find ways to make his neighbors miserable.” She later added, without providing any corroborating evidence, that Chávez is “involved in ways in Colombia with the FARC that are unhelpful.” When questioned in regards to Rice’s remarks, Ambassador Alvarez quickly responded, “Whenever people ask me whether Venezuela supports the FARC I refer them to President Uribe’s own statements.” Uribe, on numerous recent occasions has insisted that he views Chávez not as a foe, but as a partner in his efforts to curtail insurgent activities along the Venezuelan-Colombian border. Following the Cartagena summit he directly contradicted the Bush administration’s frequently repeated adverse view, emphasizing that in his efforts to restore security to Colombia he has received, “great support in the intentions, decisions and commitments from President Chávez.”

The Politics of Economics
Fortunately, Presidents Chávez and Uribe have prevented state policy from becoming consumed by incessant political posturing. In fact, since Chávez’s overwhelming victory in the recall referendum, Bogotá has expressed its willingness to collaborate with its neighbor. In interviews and press conferences before and after the November 9 presidential meeting, both leaders assured the press that absolutely no ill will exists between Caracas and Bogotá. On October 25, President Uribe stated that the relationship between the two “has ceased to be scandalous and become one of work, with a concrete agenda.” Upon arriving to Cartagena, Chávez addressed the most polemic issue dividing the two countries, unequivocally stating that the Venezuelan government “does not support the FARC. That is a big lie…what we hope for Colombia is peace.”

Chávez’s and Uribe’s mutual interest in fostering domestic economic growth by diversifying their respective country’s export markets helps to explain why they are intent on strengthening their mutual economic collaboration. While border security concerns were addressed at their November 9 meeting, the South American leaders focused their discussions especially on the expansion of bilateral trade and cooperative efforts to gain access to new markets. After a tumultuous 2003 during which Venezuela’s economy took a drastic hit from the country’s raging political discord, experts expect the country’s GDP to expand by approximately eleven percent this year, while Colombia’s more stable economy should see an increase of about four percent. Part of that growth is attributed to a 73 percent increase in trade between the two neighbors.

The political fortunes of both the Venezuelan and Colombian presidents may in part depend on each one’s ability to expand upon this economic growth, particularly with each other’s country. Chávez needs a dependable source of revenue in order to continue funding the social programs at the core of his hugely popular “Bolivarian Revolution.” The need for this revenue will grow, as Venezuelan officials indicated on November 22 that up to three and a half billion dollars would be transferred from the state-owned oil company (PDVSA) to the country’s development fund in 2005, up from two billion in 2004. Meanwhile, in order for him to secure a second presidential term, Uribe must be in a position to point to clear-cut successes in the realm of improved living standards unrelated to Colombia’s war of attrition with left- and right-wing insurgents. In particular, Uribe’s ministers hope to encourage non-traditional sectors of the country’s economy such as the chemical and value-added manufacturing industries, for which the country’s Andean neighbors, most notably Venezuela, already constitute the largest market. The importance of these non-traditional exports to Colombia’s future economic growth is critical, for between January and August of this year alone their total export value exceeded that of the country’s traditional products such as coffee.

Getting Down to Business
It is therefore clear enough why Chávez and Uribe are prepared to put petty politics aside and place their bets on a number of joint economic projects that will most likely foster stability between the two countries. Included among their lofty economic plans is the construction of a pipeline from Venezuela’s oil rich Maracaibo region to Colombia’s Pacific coast, as well as plans for PDVSA to increase its investments in Colombian refineries. Designed to exploit China’s expanding demand for oil, these joint ventures are meant to capitalize on Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, the fourth largest in the world, and Colombia’s strategic geographic position, to the benefit of all parties. At the Cartagena summit, even the controversy over border security issues was framed within a context of economic development.

Chavez and Uribe have committed themselves to a bilateral effort to encourage a wide range of development projects that hopefully will provide the jobs and economic activity necessary to restore social order to the region. Such economic realities require a stable relationship between Colombia and Venezuela, further demonstrating that when it comes down to these oft-disputatious neighbors, dollars and cents ultimately trump ideological differences. For this constructive economic relationship to be achieved, channels of open communication must be protected, and discussions carried out in a respectful and sympathetic tone. Relations between Venezuela and Colombia currently appear to satisfy such requirements despite constant attempts by third parties to subvert ties between the two. Even during episodes of intense controversy and turmoil, both Chávez and Uribe have maintained an official line of diplomatic tact towards one another, taking care not to jeopardize fundamental shared interests by launching sterile zero sum games against each other. The potential for a slew of lucrative business deals between the two makes it imperative that, above all else, stability, prudent policy and long term interests guide relations between the two South American countries.
This analysis was prepared by Gabriel Espinosa Gonzalez, COHA Research Associate.Additional research provided by Mark Scott, COHA Research FellowDecember 1, 2004

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