Venezuela-Colombia Crisis: Where was Washington?

The Bush Administration's attempts at isolating Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez over his alleged support for Colombian terrorists has sullied Washington's already tarnished image and constitutes a serious misappraisal of the prevailing diplomatic atmosphere throughout the region.

Bush Administration Should be Embarrassed as Brazil, Peru and Cuba Help Broker Compromise while U.S. Policymakers, led by Noriega, try to whip Colombia into a Frenzy

  • Washington’s Latin America policy continues to be afflicted by a severe case of short-sighted tunnel vision that makes it unlikely that the many ruptures with hemispheric nations that developed in Bush’s first term will be mended during his second term.
  • U.S. policymakers’ failed attempts at isolating Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez from the rest of Latin America as a result of a diplomatic crisis between Venezuela and Colombia—which was resolved on February 15—sullies Washington’s already tarnished image and constitutes a serious misappraisal of the prevailing diplomatic atmosphere throughout the region.
  • The total dearth of effective and positive U.S. diplomacy during the crisis allowed regional players Brazil, Peru and Cuba to showcase their commitment toward greater unity and stability within Latin America.
  • Havana’s role in helping to mediate the crisis further embarrasses a Bush administration that rarely misses an opportunity to portray the Castro regime as an obstructionist to regional peace, but the facts prove differently.
  • The severity of the now mended crisis between Venezuela and Colombia can be attributed to the fact that it concerned two issues of utmost importance for each country’s respective president: Chávez’s mobilization around the issue of national sovereignty on the one hand, and the integrity of President Alvaro Uribe’s war of attrition against guerrilla forces operating in his country on the other.
  • Ultimately, diplomatic assistance provided by other Latin American governments, in conjunction with bilateral economic pressures, encouraged both sides to arrive at a resolution yesterday in which Caracas agreed to resume bilateral trade and economic projects and both governments committed themselves to cooperate on border security issues in such a way as to guarantee that “sovereignty is not affected.”

The Bush administration’s counterproductive and unfortunately predictable response to the severe diplomatic crisis that erupted in January between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, reaffirms that Latin America’s leadership cannot count upon Washington to serve as a stabilizing, mature and positive force in the region. The Bush administration’s decision to unequivocally and enthusiastically side with Bogotá, even before the details of the dispute could fully be examined, and its call for other Latin America leaders to join it in isolating Chávez—many of whom see Washington, not Caracas, as their main regional nemesis—was transparently Machiavellian in its intent. The administration’s demarche also was grossly unsuccessful since it subsequently went unheeded. Instead, Brazil, Peru and Cuba demonstrated their ability to serve as productive mediators, helping resolve the crisis and enhancing their image as peacemakers at the expense of Washington’s reputation. As a result, Latin America was made all the more aware that its neighbor to the north cannot be viewed as anything but a unilateralist intent on maximizing every opportunity to advance its own self-interests rather than the good of the region. The destructive manner in which Washington played its hand once again showed how unprepared State Department Assistant Secretary Roger Noriega is to contribute to a constructive and non-ideological projection of U.S. policy in Latin America and provide effective leadership to the Bureau of Inter-American affairs.

Granda Affair

The abduction in Caracas and later delivery to Colombia of Rodrigo Granda of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) on December 13, which precipitated the diplomatic row between Venezuela and Colombia, led officials from both neighboring countries to swap charges with the other regarding violation of national sovereignty on the one hand, and neglect of and even collusion with guerrilla activities on the other. Despite Colombian Minister of Defense Jorge Alberto Uribe’s insistence that Granada’s apprehension was “accomplished exclusively by our operatives and in Colombian territory,” it soon became clear that the facts did not conform to that rendition of the story.

When it finally was established that Granda’s capture in Caracas was a result of collaboration between Colombian security officials and a number of renegade Venezuelan national guardsmen and policemen serving as bounty hunters without the instruction of their superiors, Chávez responded forcefully. Speaking on his weekly radio address on January 9, he characterized the apprehension as a clear violation of Venezuelan sovereignty and later demanded an apology from President Uribe and a thorough investigation of the matter. Bogotá, after reluctantly admitting on January 12 that it indeed had paid for Granda’s capture, responded in kind by rehashing allegations of complicity between Caracas and the leftist FARC, while justifying the abduction on the basis of its fight against international terrorism. A vicious cycle of recriminating exchanges ensued, reaching a boiling point on January 14 when, after already calling back his ambassador to Bogotá, Chávez raised the stakes by suspending all commercial ties with its neighbor to the west. The Venezuelan president claimed that regardless of intent, it was completely unjustifiable for high-ranking Colombian officials to attempt to “instigate Venezuelan officials to commit a crime…that they attempt to buy Venezuelan soldiers so that they sell out their nation.” At this point, there was good reason to fear that the two neighbors had reached an impasse and things could only get worse.

A Wasted Opportunity

With the dispute between Venezuela and Colombia escalating to a level far beyond that of a simple diplomatic spat, the Bush administration had a unique opportunity to begin to make amends for its mostly unilateral, arrogant and, at best, neglectful first-term Latin America policy. With Chávez and Uribe—respectively the Bush administration’s nemesis and staunchest ally in the region—involved in a serious confrontation that appeared to require third-party mediation, Washington should have offered to help broker an agreement between the two countries rather than pour vinegar on an open wound. A conciliatory policy, as previously followed by U.S. ambassador to Caracas William Brownfield, could have proved highly beneficial for the Bush administration’s stained reputation, as it would have exhibited a newfound willingness on its part to serve as a constructive force in the region at a time when a new generation of left-of-center leaders in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay had come to the fore. Moreover they demonstrated themselves to be inherently wary of Washington’s meddlesome tactics and more reluctant than their predecessors to cooperate blindly on any issue that the hemispheric superpower identifies as being of emerging importance.

Furthermore, such a move would have entailed very little political cost because regardless of how the dispute was eventually resolved, Washington would have been able to interpret its role in the matter as consonant with its overall commitment to Colombia’s fight against “terrorism.” Had U.S.-mediated talks proved fruitless, the strategy would nevertheless have allowed the White House to appease some members of Congress, among them Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), who on one occasion or another had voiced their concerns about Washington’s deteriorating relations with Caracas, one of the U.S.’s largest suppliers of foreign oil. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the committee’s chairman, also has expressed his broad concern with current U.S. regional policy, indirectly criticizing the Bush administration and expressing his hope that newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has “people in the department [State Department Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs] who are on top of the situation.” This can only be interpreted as a slap in the face of Assistant Noriega, a political extremist whose policy initiatives more often than not reflect the views of Miami’s hard-right expatriate community, rather than more diplomatically oriented moderates in either the U.S. or Latin America.

Attempts Fall Flat

Old habits are always difficult to shed, and all the more so when the administration in power does not take kindly to constructive criticism or often admit and move to redress past mistakes. Instead of steering a course toward mutually beneficial and potentially a more successful diplomacy, the Bush administration’s policymakers reverted to their customary hard line, viewing Caracas’ dispute with Bogotá as just one more opportunity to further their goal of isolating Chávez within Latin America. One can argue, though, that considering Venezuela’s increased contact and collaboration with regional governments, it is Washington that in fact has ended up being isolated in Latin America. That the U.S. had a favorite in the dispute was undeniable, but on January 15, U.S. Ambassador to Bogotá William Wood issued a posturing statement expressing his government’s “100 percent” support for Colombia’s position, even after it had been revealed that Uribe’s government paid for Granda’s capture in Venezuela. With this Washington became the first and along with El Salvador the only hemispheric government to publicly disavow a position of neutrality. In recent years El Salvador’s conservative government has proved itself a loyal sycophant of Washington, siding with the minority of Latin American governments on two especially noteworthy occasions: supporting the Bush administration during the Iraqi invasion and earlier in its decision to recognize the short-lived government that undemocratically unseated Chávez in 2002.

What transpired next was a concerted effort led by Noriega to attempt to line-up the rest of the region on Washington’s side. This grave miscalculation presupposed two things: that Washington’s voice commanded utmost respect in Latin America and that the region’s governments, especially those aspiring to position themselves as influential actors, did not have a big stake in wanting to see the dispute between Venezuela and Colombia successfully mediated. Both theses turned out to be false, and thus the diplomatic communiqué sent by Washington urging Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Mexico City and others to pressure Chávez to yield to Bogotá’s demands was either ignored or repudiated on a de facto basis.

Noriega, in essence, implicitly admitted to his diplomatic miscalculation when in a February 4 interview on the publicly-funded U.S. overseas’ radio network, Voice of America, he lamented the fact that certain Latin American governments had decided to adopt an attitude independent of Washington (appropriately enough for the Bush administration’s low expectations for its diplomacy in the region, the day before this interview it was announced that Noriega would remain at his post during Bush’s second term). The Assistant Secretary blithely referred to these governments’ unwillingness to be party to Washington’s self-righteous confrontation with Chávez in a sanguine way, categorizing it as “a sort of fatigue among the countries in the hemisphere” that he hoped would soon pass. He promised to continue his Cold War-era inspired campaign, adding that Washington might even seek to invoke the “Democracy” charter of the Organization of American States, which calls for collective sanctions against presidents who seek to become de facto dictators, against Chávez. In broad terms, the Bush administration’s Latin America policy, as characterized by this particular case, is and will most likely continue to be afflicted by a severe case of tunnel vision that will work against better inter-American relations as well as the possibility of arriving at some sort of consensus on other hemispheric issues identified as critical to U.S. interests, such as drug trafficking, security and free trade. Simply put, the Noriega era has been a disaster for sound U.S.-Latin American ties, which at some point may go beyond repair.

Latin American Initiative

With Washington’s contribution to placating the Venezuela–Colombia dispute consisting almost solely of barbs directed at President Chávez, other Latin American governments rose to the occasion. As Ambassador Wood and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher spoke of the need to pressure Caracas and Secretary Rice referred to Chávez as a “negative force” in her Senate confirmation hearing, the governments of Peru and Mexico were the first to emphasize the need for Venezuela and Colombia to maintain open channels of communication. Peru, which currently holds the presidency of the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), to which both countries belong, played a particularly instrumental role in bringing Chávez and Uribe closer to a settlement and to yesterday’s face-to-face meeting, which originally was scheduled for February 3. Once the dispute had virtually been resolved, Uribe thanked Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo and his Foreign Minister, Manual Rodríguez, for their “efficient and intelligent mediating role.” Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva also offered his government’s assistance and took advantage of a previously scheduled meeting with Uribe in the Colombian city of Leticia on January 9 to help relieve some of the hostility between Colombia and Venezuela. Lula, whose ideological posture originally was very similar to that of Chávez’, nevertheless maintains close ties with both countries’ presidents. Moreover, since assuming the Brazilian presidency in 2003, he has led a campaign for his nation to become a greater regional player, an aspiration that undoubtedly influenced his words and actions in this case, and his decision to sell aircraft to Venezuela. The deal has not yet been finalized but Caracas will likely purchase up to two dozen Super Tucano training and light combat planes from Brasilia. And although the agreement has raised fears of a future arms race between Venezuela and Colombia, the fact that Chávez is purchasing the equipment from a friend and a burgeoning partner of Washington makes it difficult for the U.S. to loudly voice its concern over the sale. In fact, the deal in effect erects a defensive barrier around Venezuela because Washington is hardly looking for a fight with Brasilia, and even Noriega would not try to bully Brazil as if it were a Caribbean mini-state.

Perhaps most surprising of all was Cuba’s role in mediating the crisis, as first reported by the Colombian daily El Tiempo. According to the article, President Uribe himself reached out to Fidel Castro for assistance as the situation appeared to be spiraling out of control. Castro responded by dispatching his foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, to Caracas on January 19 to meet with Chávez. After being apprised of the situation and of the Venezuelan president’s willingness to reach an agreement – provided that Bogotá would agree to a thorough investigation of Granda’s capture – Pérez Roque returned to Havana and that same night Castro and Uribe had a long conversation in which the basic outlines of a compromise began to be discerned. Following a meeting with Cuba’s Assistant Foreign Minister, Abelardo Romero, and discussions with key Colombian businessmen who were increasingly worried over the financial consequences of Venezuela’s decision to suspend trade with Colombia, Uribe personally wrote a letter agreeing to some of Chávez’s demands while stipulating that his concerns ultimately lie with the Colombian people. The details of the compromise were later worked out by the foreign ministers of both countries at the CAN summit held in Lima on January 27. The following day, Colombia’s ministry of foreign affairs released a statement announcing the “the incident [between the two countries] has been overcome” and that Chávez and Uribe would meet in Caracas on February 3 to consummate the agreement – although the encounter was subsequently postponed to February 15 after Uribe fell ill.

Uribe, careful not to embarrass Washington but at the same time trying to seve his own country’s authentic national interests, which are far from identical to those of the U.S., has kept Castro’s prominent role in the negotiations mostly under wraps, although he is known to be grateful for it. Chávez, of course, held no such qualms and on January 30, while participating in the World Social Forum in Brazil, thanked Cuba, Brazil and Peru for their assistance in resolving his country’s dispute with Colombia, referring to its leaders as “worried friends.” Castro’s decision to help mediate, though, was not based solely on altruistic intentions. In fact, not only does the manner in which the dispute was ultimately resolved provide the Cuban strongman with an honored place to hang his diplomatic hat, but more importantly, it also benefits Castro that Chávez, his closest hemispheric ally, has been able to maintain constructive relations with the rest of the region and come out of the incident with increased prestige. In any event, Havana’s success must be seen as Washington’s failure.

Two Bulls Stand Down

To understand why the recent crisis between Venezuela and Colombia mushroomed into the most intense diplomatic dispute between the two neighbors in decades, one must first understand that it was primarily a confrontation between two men with very strong convictions and the wherewithal to defend them. Because the Granda affair dealt with two issues that both Chávez and Uribe consider as being of paramount importance to their respective nations and their hold on power, the dispute was able to escalate far beyond that of the usual diplomatic spat. Both presidents, despite subscribing to diametrically opposed ideological positions, share many similarities: both lead highly personalistic governments whose popular mandate is based on the fact that a majority of their constituents perceive them as strong and willful leaders who operate in ways that distinguish them from their predecessors.

This feeling is especially evident in Venezuela, where Chávez is hailed by a poor majority that virtually had been ignored by a long line of centrist leaders who were content to govern according to the interests of the country’s elite and at a price of wanton corruption. Chávez’s rhetoric, therefore, is laced with heavy nationalistic and populist overtones and guarantees to reaffirm Venezuelan sovereignty and equality for all of its citizens in the face of “foreign and domestic aggression.” On the other hand, Uribe has confronted Colombia’s decades-long conflict with both right- and left-wing guerrilla groups with an aggressiveness that places him in stark contrast with his somewhat disgraced, if high-minded predecessor, Andrés Pastrana. Pastrana, who adopted a more conciliatory—his critics would claim weak—stance against the insurgency. Uribe, on the other hand, has consistently increased and expanded his country’s military budget and size, demonstrating his commitment to challenge the guerrilla forces head on regardless of the consequences or level of casualties.

The Granda affair served to highlight abiding and contentious issues on both sides of the border, which to an extent precluded them from adopting a more conciliatory and proactive approach to resolving the ensuing crisis. Such a position could have allowed each leader to be perceived as weak and could potentially have risked undermining some of their sources of support. This reality exacerbated a situation that normally could have been resolved through the type of open face-to-face discussions that, in the months preceding Granda’s capture, had led to a noticeable improvement in Venezuela–Colombia bilateral relations. Following yesterday’s meeting between Chávez and Uribe, the latter acknowledged as much, stating that when future disagreements arise the approach should be “prudent” with “more direct communication” and less yellow journalism.

In the end, foreign mediation helped to induce both Caracas and Bogotá to reach a diplomatic agreement that in reality they were anxious to achieve all along, with vital economic factors undoubtedly exerting pressure for a timely settlement. Venezuela is Colombia’s second largest trading partner ($2.5 billion in bilateral trade) and Chávez’s decision to suspend commercial ties placed a heavy burden on the latter’s economy. As of January 29, for example, five large coal producing corporations that operate in the Colombian state of Santander estimated their losses resulting from the disagreement at $1.7 million. Furthermore, the dispute threatened to derail a number of critical commercial agreements vital to bringing about Chávez’s economic platform, foremost among them the building of a $120 million, 92-mile pipeline from Venezuela’s oil rich Maracaibo region to Colombia’s Pacific coast, which is mainly designed to satisfy China’s expanding demand for oil and to diversify Caracas’ dependence on the US market. The rupture over Granda resulted in an economic burden that neither country was willing to bear in the long run and served as a strong incentive for both sides to reach a compromise as soon as possible. Following the February 15 meeting, Caracas and Bogotá have now resumed normalized diplomatic and economic ties. Left unanswered is why throughout the ordeal Washington was content to remain caviling from the sidelines, offering little hope that an improvement in relations with some of its more recalcitrant hemispheric neighbors would be forthcoming or even particularly desired.

This analysis was prepared by Gabriel Espinosa-Gonzalez, COHA Research Fellow. February 16, 2005