The already bad relations between Venezuela and Colombia took a turn for the worse after accusations were made by a representative of the outgoing administration of Colombian President Uribe on July 22. Luis Hoyos, Colombia's ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), charged the Venezuelan government with harboring Colombian guerrillas and allowing guerrilla camps inside its territory. The "evidence"—which has been discredited—for this batch of accusations (as with previous ones) came from eight "magical laptops" seized by Colombian military forces in an illegal military raid into Ecuador last year.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reacted to the accusations by breaking off relations with Colombia on July 22, leading to worsening relations between the two nations. Nevertheless, Chavez announced he would send his foreign minister to attend the August 7 inauguration of Uribe's successor, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Uribe's response was to announce that his government was lodging a formal accusation against Venezuela in the Inter-American Committee of Human Rights and another formal charge against President Chavez personally to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Furthermore, Uribe reportedly announced he would be prepared to testify against Chavez.
However, intense diplomatic activity undertaken by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), Venezuela's Foreign Relations Minister Nicolas Maduro, UNASUR's President Nestor Kirchner, and Brazil's President Lula managed to turn what looked like a disaster into one of the most extraordinary political turnarounds in recent Latin American history.
At his inauguration, President Santos stunned the world by announcing that his Administration would prioritize normalizing Colombia's relations with Venezuela and Ecuador. In stark contrast to the prevailing attitude under Uribe, Santos declared, "The word war is not in my dictionary when I think about Colombia's relations with its neighbors." Santos also ordered the handing over of Raul Reyes's laptops to the government of Ecuador.
The U.S. and British media had accepted the evidence publicized by the Colombian authorities at the time. As is well known, but not widely publicized, Ronald Coy, head of Colombia's technology police, admitted in an official investigation that the data in the laptops had been manipulated before being subjected to judicial review and that no emails had been found in them. We shall soon see how much of Hoyos's "evidence" to the OAS is left standing after Ecuador's laptop analysis takes place. The Venezuelan government has consistently denied the charges and, to this day, no serious evidence has been produced to substantiate allegations that Venezuela harbors guerrilla camps in its territory or that it gives them resources and weapons.
Venezuela and Colombia share a very porous 1,375-mile border. Colombia's internal conflict has the unfortunate dynamic of spilling over into other countries in the form of guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug traffickers, refugees, and immigrants escaping from the conflict. (About five million Colombians reside permanently in Venezuela.) It is estimated that, overall, Colombia's military has more than 300,000 soldiers—proportionately one of the largest in the region and 7 times larger than the armed forces of Venezuela. It benefits from $7 billion in U.S. military aid (the second largest in the world), but is nevertheless incapable of controlling its domestic terrain, in which there are about 8,000 armed guerrilla fighters, thousands of active illegal paramilitary forces, and a great deal of drug trafficking. Most of the cocaine in the world is produced in Colombia and about 50 percent of the production takes place there as well, according to UNODOC. Venezuela is geographically sandwiched between the largest producer and the largest consumer of cocaine in the world, Colombia and the United States.
After Santos's inauguration, assisted by Kirchner, the foreign ministers of Colombia and Venezuela met and announced that Presidents Santos and Chavez would be meeting at a special summit on August 10 in Colombia. Chavez immediately called on the guerrillas to seek a political solution: "The Colombian guerrillas do not have a future by way of arms…moreover, they have become an excuse for the [U.S.] empire to intervene in Colombia and threaten Venezuela from there," he said. He also called on them to show their commitment to a peace accord through "decisive demonstrations, for example, that they will liberate all those they have kidnapped."
It is clear that Santos wanted to repair relations with Venezuela and Ecuador partly because he wanted to end Colombia's regional isolation, but also because the cessation of trade with Venezuela had affected Colombia's economy (their mutual trade had declined by 73.7 percent).
Uribe's efforts to sabotage the summit mirror the actions of those in Washington who have been lobbying to declare Venezuela a "state that sponsors terrorism" and "a narcostate." The latter view is especially strong in the U.S. military's SOUTHCOM and in the U.S. Congress. SOUTHCOM has been busily installing U.S. military bases in the region and has resuscitated the Fourth Fleet (decommissioned in 1950). The U.S. deployed 20,000 soldiers to Haiti after the earthquake and has stationed massive military forces in Costa Rica (7,000 soldiers, 200 helicopters, and 46 warships until the end of December 2010). Thus, labeling Venezuela a "sponsor of terrorism" may have serious military consequences. Regional leaders are alarmed about these developments and have expressed serious concern.
A normally omitted dimension of Colombian-Venezuelan relations is the attitude of Venezuela's right wing. Under Uribe's two presidential mandates, they have sided with him. They did so again this time, but were unprepared for Santos's announcement. Also worth noting is the fact that the U.S. administration was reduced to the role of de facto spectator. The U.S. had been supportive of the accusations against Chavez at the OAS: "it is expressly because of our concerns about the links between Venezuela and the FARC that we have not certified Venezuela in recent years as fully cooperating with the United States and others in terms of these antiterrorism efforts," stated the U.S. ambassador to OAS. But the U.S. was clearly sidelined by UNASUR's brinkmanship. It is Santos, Chavez, and UNASUR (especially Brazil) who have been running the show.
According to Laura Carlsen, Americas Program director at the Center for International Policy, "Brazil's government has made it clear that it would like the matter to be taken up within UNASUR, without the influence of the United States. It proclaimed South America a 'region of peace' and affirmed that problems between countries should be first dealt with bilaterally." This shows the growing assertiveness and independence from U.S. influence and that there is also growing regional independence from traditional economic centers. Most Latin American leaders feel they averted an almost certain Uribe/U.S. driven war.
It remains to be seen how far this summit will take the two countries. They have decided to fully restore their relations in every field and the two presidents have established five commissions within the framework of a statement of principles signed by them. They include a commission for debt; another for the economic collaboration between the two countries; one for the development of a plan of investment in their common border; another for the joint undertaking of infrastructural works; and a security commission. Both heads of state undertook a commitment to collaborate in the struggle against drug trafficking and paramilitary and illegal armed activity. Colombia has sent the president of their Congress, Armando Benedetti, to assist the process of full restoration of relations between the two countries and there has been popular rejoicing in both countries. Not all the issues pending between the two nations were addressed, however, such as the U.S. military bases in Colombia, the urgent need for a peace process in Colombia, and the charges leveled against Venezuela to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and against President Chavez to the International Criminal Court.
The dogs of war have been kept at bay, at least temporarily. Peace has broken out. The full restoration of relations between Venezuela and Colombia is indeed very positive. However, the array of forces set against the implementation of such a broad agenda are formidable. For starters, it is led by the U.S. and involves powerful economic groups located in most countries in the region, such as the separatists in eastern Bolivia who nearly overthrew Morales's government in 2009; the Venezuelan right, which managed to actually oust Chavez in 2002 (with U.S. complicity), but who the people returned to power; much of the Colombian oligarchy; the extremely wealthy and powerful Chilean Pinochetista bourgeoisie; the right wing in Argentina; the wealthy Guayaquil entrepreneurs; and so forth. All of these groups, in one way or another, favor continued U.S. militarization in the face of radical social movements and progressive governments.
Uribe's efforts to bring about a war with Venezuela underscores the U.S. "predicament": faced with the rebellion of its Southern neighbors, unable to win politically, and incapable of offering anything such as development, progress, investment, or even the American Way of life, it tried again to resort to war to keep its "backyard" under control. Much of Latin America has opted for democracy, social progress, national sovereignty, and peace. On this occasion even elements within the staunchest pro-U.S. Colombian oligarchy have sided with the South, not the North. We shall see who beats the other in the historic arm-wrestling underway.
Francisco Dominguez is secretary of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.