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Bogota Brouhaha

Why is Colombia putting the screws to Chavez now?

Venezuela and Colombia are the original odd-couple of Hemispheric diplomacy. With the former run by a rambunctious socialist autocrat and the latter by a U.S.-aligned hard-right hawk, the two countries have been on a collision course for years. The proximate cause and biggest irritant has long been the Venezuelan government's tacit alliance with FARC, Colombia’s oldest and largest Marxist guerrilla movement. 

This week, tensions just about boiled over as Colombia presented detailed evidence of Venezuelan collusion with FARC and a smaller rival guerrilla, the ELN. In a speech to the Organization of American States, Colombian ambassador Luis Alfonso Hoyos accused the Venezuelan government of allowing the rebels to set up and consolidate more than 80 camps on the Venezuelan side of the lightly-governed 1,375 mile border between the two countries. He also asked for an international verification mission to visit the sites within 30 days. Less than an hour later, President Chávez responded by breaking off all diplomatic relations with Colombia and placing his armed forces in a state of alert ahead of possible air raids into Venezuelan territory.

The moves are notable more for the timing than for their substance. That FARC has long enjoyed a safe haven inside Venezuelan territory has been an open secret for years: books have been written about the Colombian rebels' extensive racketeering operation on the Venezuelan side of the border, and a Spanish investigative journalism TV show even managed to record Venezuelan army officials openly discussing the location of FARC and ELN camps inside Venezuela. What isn't clear, however, is why Colombia's president Alvaro Uribe would choose to make this evidence public now, less than three weeks before he's set to hand power over to his protegé and one-time Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos. 

Long considered even more hawkish than Uribe, Santos was the defense minister who ordered the 2008 raid that killed FARC's number two leader at a camp inside Ecuador, setting off a major diplomatic crisis at the time. Back then, Santos complained that Colombian requests for the Ecuadoreans to move on suspected FARC sites in their country had gone unheeded, an accusation echoed in Thursdays's report on Venezuela. Yet, since being elected by a landslide in June, Santos has struck a conciliatory pose towards Venezuela, appointing a former Colombian ambassador to Venezuela with deep connections in Caracas as Foreign Minister and moving towards rekindling the once-thriving bilateral trade relationship between the two countries. 

It's at this point that motivations get murky. One school of thought—particularly prevalent inside Venezuela—sees the supposed Uribe-Santos rift as carefully orchestrated political theater: a ruse to set up an elaborate Good Cop/Bad Cop routine, with Uribe in charge of airing out some politically explosive charges and Santos then stepping in to repair the relationship with key facts already out in the open. This approach would spare president-elect Santos the blowback from personally disclosing the facts included in Thursday's report, while ensuring that a post-transition rapprochement includes a forthright negotiation over rebel sanctuaries in Venezuela.

The second interpretation, more prevalent in Colombian political circles, sees the Uribe-Santos rift as real, and Uribe's decision to air Venezuela's collusion with FARC as a last ditch attempt to sabotage Santos's intended rapprochement with Venezuela. Santos's refusal to stake a position either in favor or against Uribe's move could be taken as evidence for either of the two interpretations. 

If the Santos-Uribe rift is indeed just for show, it's easy to imagine a process of normalization under Santos that includes specific demands from the Colombians on ending the rebels' safe haven in Venezuela as a pre-requisite. But if, as many in Colombia believe, Uribe is acting without Santos's approval, a cross-border Colombian attack on FARC positions inside Venezuela is not out of the question before the August 7th transition. At that point, the Good Cop could find himself inheriting not so much a tattered relationship as an imminent war. 

Francisco Toro blogs about Venezuela in the Chávez era at Caracas Chronicles

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