Colombia and Venezuela are consumed by an escalating dispute over the December 13 abduction of Rodrigo Granda, alias â€œRicardo,â€ a FARC member who clandestinely represented the group internationally. Things began to get worse quickly once the Colombian government was forced to admit last week that, despite claims to the contrary, Granda was indeed picked up in Caracas. Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez called back his ambassador and froze several commercial deals with Colombia, and the U.S. embassy announced â€œ100 percentâ€ support for Colombia.
Granda reportedly attended the â€œSecond Bolivarian Congress of the People,â€ a December 8-9 civil-society gathering in Caracas at which ChÃ¡vez gave an address. Days later, Granda was abducted, probably by off-duty members of the Venezuelan security forces, and taken hundreds of miles away to the border city of CÃºcuta, Colombia, where Colombian police announced his arrest and paraded him before reportersâ€™ cameras. As the FARC, leftist websites and eventually the ChÃ¡vez government presented evidence that Granda had been abducted in downtown Caracas, Colombiaâ€™s government spent the next four weeks insisting that he had been arrested in CÃºcuta, sticking to its story even as late as last Tuesday. Eventually, on Wednesday the 12th, Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe admitted that Colombiaâ€™s government indeed paid a bounty for Grandaâ€™s capture in Venezuela.
Since then, the problem has snowballed and spiraled. Today, there is an apparent impasse. ChÃ¡vez is demanding a bilateral meeting with Uribe â€“ a formula that has reduced tensions during past crises â€“ but is first demanding a public recognition that Colombia acted illegally. Uribe refuses to issue such an apology, wants a summit of Andean leaders instead of a face-to-face meeting, and appears to be trying to shift the debate toward long-rumored allegations that ChÃ¡vez is harboring the FARC in Venezuela.
What we donâ€™t know
Itâ€™s hard to make any definitive statements about this case, because we still donâ€™t know exactly how Granda was captured, who was paid and when. It is clear, though, that Granda was not formally arrested in Venezuela (as FARC member SimÃ³n Trinidad was a year ago in Ecuador). The FARC representative â€“ who lived in Venezuela, carried a Venezuelan ID card and even reportedly voted in Venezuelan elections â€“ was abducted. Since legal channels were not used to bring Granda to justice, ChÃ¡vez is probably right when he says that Venezuelan law was broken.
We still donâ€™t know much about Grandaâ€™s captors, other than that they were apparently members of the Venezuelan security forces. Did the Colombian government recruit, bribe or pay them beforehand? (ChÃ¡vez has alleged that â€œColombian government agents were in Venezuela for months bribing and encouraging Venezuelan government agents.â€) Did the Colombian government merely offer reward money after the fact, as it does with Colombian citizens who offer intelligence about guerrilla whereabouts? Were U.S. intelligence services involved, as the FARC and other left-wing analysts have charged without proof?
The presidents must meet
Though we donâ€™t know all of the details, it should be obvious that this must be ended through diplomacy, and soon. Before trust deteriorates still further, communication between the two governments is necessary to determine not only what happened, but whether Colombian perceptions of Venezuelan non-cooperation have any basis in fact.
ChÃ¡vezâ€™s request for a bilateral, face-saving meeting is reasonable, and Uribe should accept it. ChÃ¡vezâ€™s pre-condition for that meeting â€“ requiring Uribe to make a humiliating admission that Colombian police committed a crime â€“ should be dropped. The two leaders should meet without pre-conditions. Past meetings have shown that the two leaders can work together when their positions are not filtered through the hard-liners on both sides.
All sides are wrong
So far, no party to this dispute is without blame. The Colombian government looks bad, of course, because it appears to have enthusiastically condoned a cross-country abduction of an unarmed individual, without the knowledge of the host government. Obviously, the golden rule should apply here: Colombia would be terribly offended, for instance, if Venezuela paid Colombian agents to kidnap a Venezuelan from downtown BogotÃ¡. This scenario is not too far-fetched, since Pedro Carmona, the businessman who spent a few hours as Venezuelaâ€™s would-be president during a failed April 2002 coup, now lives in exile in Colombia.
The Colombian government also looks bad because it got caught lying. All governments lie, but this cover-up is especially damaging because the Uribe government had to admit that the FARC were telling the truth. While the government was insisting that Granda was arrested in CÃºcuta, the FARC had been claiming since a December 30 communiquÃ© that the abduction had happened in Caracas. In Washington, where Colombian government data are accepted as gospel and FARC claims generally ignored, it is a bit disorienting to see the government caught in a lie and the guerrillas on the side of truth. How far does this credibility problem extend? Is the Granda abduction an isolated case, or must we look more skeptically at other cases in which all we have is the governmentâ€™s word against the guerrillasâ€™ version of events?
An example is the â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ military offensive in southern Colombia. The government insists that the large-scale operation is going well but offers little information, while the guerrillas offer what appear to be wildly inflated accounts of victories and government casualties (like this one, this one, this one and this one). Are the guerrillas exaggerating, or â€“ as in the Granda case â€“ is there some truth to their claims of high body counts and effective repulsion of government advances?
Hugo ChÃ¡vez looks bad because his relationship to the FARC is being called uncomfortably into question. The Granda case reveals what is essentially an untenable position for ChÃ¡vez with regard to Colombian guerrillas in Venezuelan territory. If he helps the Uribe government to root them out and capture them, he risks condemnation from some sectors of the Latin American left whose support he seeks in order to promote his â€œBolivarianâ€ vision. If he knowingly tolerates them, though, he risks making an enemy out of a close neighbor and trading partner. (Ideology aside, you canâ€™t expect to be friends with a neighboring government if youâ€™re giving safe haven to those who want to overthrow it.)
While itâ€™s not official Venezuelan government policy, ChÃ¡vez seems to have settled on a piecemeal position: FARC members in Venezuela on political missions â€“ such as attending conferences or holding informal dialogues â€“ appear to be largely tolerated. It is less likely that ChÃ¡vez encourages or allows guerrilla military operations on Venezuelan territory.
That doesnâ€™t mean the FARC (or the ELN or the AUC, for that matter) canâ€™t be found on the Venezuelan side of the two countriesâ€™ long, remote, largely undeveloped and ungoverned border zone. In a statement issued Sunday, Uribe cites the presence of â€œseven terrorist leaders and various encampmentsâ€ that the Venezuelan security forces have allowed to persist in their territory. Is the armed FARC presence evidence that ChÃ¡vez is providing â€œsafe havenâ€ for the guerrillas? Or is the situation similar to what exists in Ecuadorian, Peruvian or Panamanian border zones?
All of Colombiaâ€™s neighbors wish to avoid seeing violence spill beyond the remote frontier areas, but have also wished to avoid giving Colombian armed groups a reason to attack the usually small detachments of soldiers and police stationed near the border. The result is that most of Colombiaâ€™s neighbors have been tacitly allowing Colombian armed groups to operate in remote border zones for years. The Venezuelan case is unremarkable. (It is remarkable, though, that the two countriesâ€™ border forces coordinate and communicate so rarely, considering the length and unguarded nature of their common border.) No official has denounced that the ChÃ¡vez governmentâ€™s policy is to give free rein to FARC military elements; if that were true, BogotÃ¡ would have broken relations with Caracas long ago.
Meanwhile, ChÃ¡vez is also wrong to take such a hard line on the way out of the dispute. It is not clear what he hopes to achieve by cutting off trade ties, recalling the ambassador and demanding that Uribe apologize publicly before agreeing to a meeting. A more skillful statesman would offer Colombia a means to recognize its wrongdoing â€“ thus giving Venezuela a moral victory â€“ without rubbing Uribeâ€™s face in it by forcing him to make a humiliating admission. Some face-saving will be necessary in order to crawl out of this crisis. Otherwise, Colombia and Venezuela will be condemned to a relationship of mutual hostility for quite some time (a situation that, given the closeness of trade ties and the long border they share, neither can afford).
The United States
Meanwhile, the United States is wrong too. Our government could have played a key role in defusing this crisis and encouraging both sides to move on, or we could have concluded â€“ correctly â€“ that we donâ€™t have a dog in this fight. Instead, Ambassador Wood decided to jump in on Colombiaâ€™s side, telling reporters that â€œwe support 100 percent the declarations from [Colombiaâ€™s] presidential palace.â€
If this statement was intended to help smooth things over, we have no idea how. In fact, it might be the beginning of a likely escalation of Bush administration criticism of ChÃ¡vez, as part of a policy shift documented in a Washington Times piece from last week.
Uribe will be discussing the Venezuela issue in a previously scheduled meeting on Wednesday with Brazilian president Lula da Silva, and in a special meeting on Thursday with the governmentâ€™s Foreign Relations Advisory Commission, a body that includes ex-presidents and former foreign ministers.
Most observers agree that the two presidents should meet as soon as possible. For this to happen, ChÃ¡vez should back down from his demand that Uribe first admit Colombian wrongdoing. Uribe must back down from his demand that the meeting in fact be a summit of the Andean regionâ€™s presidents. We wholly endorse the following series of steps recommended by the Colombian human rights group CODHES for â€œa political and diplomatic solutionâ€:
- President Uribe should offer a public explanation of the operation that led to Grandaâ€™s capture.
- President ChÃ¡vez should offer a public explanation of the presence of FARC guerrillas in Venezuela.
- Both presidents should meet in private to overcome the impasse and to develop mechanisms for joint action within the framework of the rule of law to confront crimes like narcotrafficking and terrorism. While this meeting occurs, no other government functionaries should make public statements about the issue.
- The two presidents should jointly announce agreements for security and police cooperation, reaffirm the economic integration process, reactivate commercial arrangements and signal the renewal of trust in binational relations.
- As Venezuelan officials are fired and prosecuted for accepting reward money from the Colombian government, the same should happen to Colombian officials who offered and distributed these payments.
(A note on CIPâ€™s position regarding Hugo ChÃ¡vez)
The Center for International Policy is encouraged to see that a representative of the left can win at the polls in Latin America despite the opposition of traditional elites and broad sectors of the armed forces. We are pleased by many of the policies Hugo ChÃ¡vez has adopted, especially his effort to direct oil revenues toward social services for Venezuelaâ€™s poor majority. It is a sign of enormous progress for Latin America if a leftist leader can be elected, institute deep reforms, and not suffer the fate of Salvador Allende or Jacobo Arbenz.
That said, our position is not â€œChÃ¡vez, right or wrong.â€ We reserve the right to criticize what we disagree with. Along with journalistsâ€™ rights groups, we are concerned by the recent law allowing the government to shut down media outlets it perceives as threatening â€œpublic order.â€ We are concerned by efforts to pack the Supreme Court with ChÃ¡vez loyalists. As a possible extension of political control, the Bolivarian circles worry us the same way that Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™s network of informants worries us. We voice disapproval when the U.S. Southern Command encourages Latin American armies to take on internal roles that have nothing to do with defense, and we note that ChÃ¡vez has similarly given the military a host of internal roles.
The Bush administration is free to express concern about perceived lapses from democracy and the rule of law, preferably in coordination with regional partners and the OAS. We absolutely oppose any illegal effort at regime change, however, whether violent or nonviolent. Though we have concerns, ChÃ¡vez remains the elected (and re-confirmed) leader of Venezuela, and we must work with him. It is important that the U.S. government maintain cordial relations, even if his policies run counter to free-market orthodoxy.