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The Colombian provocation
Colombia is, for the moment, an exception to the general move away from right-wing governments in South America. President Uribe, the staunchest ally of the USA in South America, was re-elected last year on promises to bring security to the country, and end the war by defeating the guerrillas. The FARC – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - have been fighting for 40 years in rural areas of the country. Set up by the Communist Party, opinions differ about their current ideology and strategy. Right-wing commentators claim that they are now financed by trade in cocaine, have lost their revolutionary aims, and are just narcoterrorists. Presidents Chavez of Venezuela, and Correa of Ecuador (neighbouring countries) however, recognise them as a legitimate political force.
Whatever might be the subjective factor, the objective facts are that the prolonged war is at a stalemate. The FARC can operate in rural, mainly forested, areas but the bulk of the population now lives in cities, and is tired of war. Hence the support for Uribe, despite his reactionary policies. Recently there have been signs that the FARC has wanted to follow the other guerrilla movement, the ELN, and begin a peace process. The big problem for them both is how to end the war and re-integrate into civilian life and politics. A previous revolutionary guerrilla movement, the M-19, did this in 1990 and several of its leaders were assasinated, after moving into 'democratic' politics. Such is the depth of violence in Colombian society. Right-wing paramilitaries, now supposedly demobilised, are still a potential threat.
As part of the war process, the FARC have taken prisoners who they hold to try to exchange for their own prisoners of war. In recent months they have offered to release some of these 'hostages', hoping for reciprocation and in any case as goodwill gestures. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is probably the only person the FARC trusts, and was an obvious choice as an intermediary. President Uribe was at first well disposed but suddenly changed tack and said he wanted Chavez to have no part in this process. Uribe is heavily dependent on the USA, militarily and politically. We might speculate that this U-turn was related to some phone conversation with Washington, as Chavez is a bogey-man for the White House.
Despite this attempt at veto, and sabotage tactics from the Colombian army, Chavez in fact acted as go-between for the release of some prisoners to Venezuela, to the delight of their families. The family of the best-known remaining hostage, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, has been encouraging Chavez and criticising Uribe's sabotage. Both Chavez and Correa were in contact with Raúl Reyes, the FARC second in command and usual spokesman and negotiatior, to arrange more releases, including that of Ingrid Betancourt.
Raúl Reyes was in a camp in a heavily forested area just inside the territory of Ecuador when it was bombed by Colombian forces. Helicopter-borne troops then landed, killed all occupants and removed the body of Raúl Reyes to Colombia. This much is clear, though the details are not. Reyes was possibly located from phone calls to Hugo Chavez on a satellite phone, using US intelligence resources. Uribe first claimed that the attack was in self-defence, a counter-attack in 'hot pursuit'. Then Ecuador discovered that the bodies left at the camp were in pyjamas (later pictures of broken dolls were shown, so presumably there were children there also). Ecuador and Venezuela (and later Nicaragua), broke off diplomatic relations and moved troops to the borders. Hugo Chavez made a belligerent statement in his volatile style, threatening to end trade with Colombia. Uribe then gave another version of the attack but counter-attacked by saying that both other presidents were helping the FARC and that Chavez had promised them 300 million dollars. These allegations were denied, although both 'accused' said they had been in contact with the FARC, of course, negotiating the release of hostages.
With tensions running high, the Organisation of American States (OAS) held a summit which criticised Columbia (without condemning it) and decided on a commission to investigate this violation of Ecuador's territory. Then a couple of days later, March 7th, there was a showdown at the Group of Rio summit. This group is comprised of Latin American countries, without the USA or Canada, and almost all the Presidents were there. Many of them had already made statements condemning Colombia's attack. President Lula of Brazil, the 'giant' of the region, urged Uribe to apologise. The only exceptions I know of were former President Ricardo Lagos of Chile, who supported Colombia's 'right to attack the FARC' in a speech in the USA, and Chile's Foreign Minister who said “ national borders cannot be crossed arbitrarily” and also that another commitment is “to condemn terrorism... we reject the guerrilla incursion into other countries and condemn the hostage-taking”.
President Rafael Correa of Ecuador took the moral high ground at the meeting, and held it. With controlled anger he exposed Uribe's flagrant violation of his territory, and his lies. Uribe received no support, had to apologise for the intrusion and promise that it would not be repeated in any circumstances. He promised to give Correa copies of supposed documents from the FARC leader that showed support for them from Correa. Also, he promised to withdraw an accusation of helping terrorists against Venezuela in the International Criminal Court.
With able chairing by the President of the Dominican Republic, finally the tension was dissipated, calls for peace from many sides were heard, and all involved shook hands and/or embraced. A really noxious situation was overcome, with Uribe, and by extension the USA, isolated.
Another result of the attack, predictably, is that the process of negotiating prisoner release is at a halt. As Cristina Fernández, the new President of Argentina, asked: 'If the war has been going on for 40 years, why was it necessary to kill the person negotiating the release of hostages exactly at this moment?' The opposition of the White House to Chavez's unique role in this is clear, and this probably gives the answer.
George Bush, sounding desperate, said on 12th March: "As the recent standoff in the Andes shows, the region is facing an increasingly stark choice: to quietly accept the vision of the terrorists and the demagogues, or to actively support democratic leaders" like Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Referring to Venezuela he said “ "The regime claims to promote social justice,", using a term usually reserved for the governments of US foes like Iran, North Korea and Syria. "In truth, its agenda amounts to little more than empty promises and a thirst for power." As support for Chavez grows, and “active support” for Uribe is hardly visible at the moment, his desperation is not surprsing.
Uribe perhaps had a positive result internally – an opinion poll, presumably reflecting the views of at least part of the Colombian public, showed increased support for him after the attack. Again, this may show support for the 'strong man' policy, as something that appears to give hope of ending the war. The torpedoing of the hostage release process can also be seen as a gain for Bush and Uribe, as a part of their strategy to heighten tension, possibly provoke a war, and lower the positive profile of Hugo Chavez in the region.
Thus Colombia remains a definite exception to the moves away from neoliberalism and towards socialism in Latin America in general, and South America in particular. However, its latest provocation, probably influenced by the US government's agressive arrogance, has backfired. The moves towards increased Latin American independence, integration and solidarity have been strengthened.