While Colombia and Venezuela have never fought a war, their relations have often been distant and uncomfortable. However, these rivals in South America’s “northern tier” have always avoided conflict in the past.
This has remained true today, even though both countries have rather personalistic leaders with very different political beliefs. The bilateral relationship – one cemented by US$6 billion per year in trade – has largely been sound.
While cabinet ministers and other government officials have traded barbs and insults, difficulties have been quickly papered over by very cordial “summit” meetings between Presidents Uribe and ChÃ¡vez. “Past meetings have shown that the two leaders can work together when their positions are not filtered through the hard-liners on both sides,” we wrote back in January 2005.
That dynamic appeared to be in place last week, after Uribe abruptly
revoked ChÃ¡vez’s authority to act as a facilitator of
prisoner-for-hostage exchange negotiations with the FARC guerrillas.
ChÃ¡vez had to have been angry. He had invested much time, resources, personal prestige and political capital in the dialogue effort. But his statement last Thursday took the high road. It was a model of diplomacy and magnanimity.
The government of Venezuela sends the relatives, fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, of the hundreds of Colombians who have been at the center of our sincere and modest efforts a message of faith, first in God and later in the good judgment of those who have in their hands the power to make timely, wise rectifications and subsequent decisions, while encouraging them to continue their tireless pilgrimage in search of their loved ones. The government and people of Venezuela, despite this regrettable decision of the Colombian government, have their hearts and arms open to continue lending their humble services to the cause of life and peace.
President ChÃ¡vez, however, veered from the high road in a state television interview on Saturday, perhaps provoked by President Uribe’s words in a speech given on Friday.
Uribe on Friday: These Colombian terrorists have known how to make “useful idiots” out of everyone who has extended them a hand. … These bandits have abused international good-offices, the Colombian people’s pain for the kidnap victims, and have wanted to return to combining different forms of struggle, while carrying out political protagonism in international capitals. In Caracas, abusing the need for a humanitarian accord.
ChÃ¡vez on Saturday: “There are people very close to Uribe, people with lots of power, who don’t want there to be an agreement. I wouldn’t venture to say that (Uribe) doesn’t want it, but I’m sure there are people very close to him who just want war.”
The Venezuelan president intensified his verbal attacks on Sunday, using language about Uribe that he had never before employed in public.
Sunday: “I declare before the world that I’m putting relations with Colombia in the freezer because I’ve completely lost confidence with everyone in the Colombian government.”
“They have spat brutally in our face when we worked heart and soul to try to get them on the road to peace.”
“They issued a statement yesterday filled with lies, and that is serious, very serious,”
“President Uribe is lying … in a shameless, horrible, ugly way. I think Colombia deserves another president, it deserves a better president.”
“I’m sure he didn’t want to continue in the process, the gringos pressure him a lot.”
President Uribe escalated the war of words further.
Sunday: “Your words, your positions, suggest you are not interested in peace in Colombia, but rather in Colombia becoming the victim of a terrorist government of the FARC.”
“The truth, President Chavez, is that we need mediation against the terrorists not one that legitimizes terrorism. The truth. President Chavez, is that if you are fomenting an expansionist project in the continent, it has no entrance in Colombia.”
Uribe and ChÃ¡vez have had difficulties in the past, but their language was never anywhere near as harsh as this. The breakdown of ChÃ¡vez’s facilitation role has brought the bilateral relationship to
a dangerously poor level. The rhetoric must cool before it escalates in directions that neither side – indeed, none of the hemisphere – wants to see.
1. Let’s hope things cool down after December 2. While ChÃ¡vez is no doubt angry about his abrupt termination, we must recall that everything in Venezuela right now is occurring in the context of a referendum scheduled for this Sunday. In six days, Venezuelans will go to the polls to approve or reject a set of constitutional reforms that ChÃ¡vez’s critics are portraying as a naked power grab. Polls are showing citizens supporting the reforms, but not by a large margin. President ChÃ¡vez may hope that nationalist sentiment resulting from the current crisis may increase voter turnout in favor of his reform package this Sunday. If that is the case, we should expect the rhetoric to cool after this week.
2. – Leave Piedad CÃ³rdoba alone. Until Thursday, Colombian Senator Piedad CÃ³rdoba was a government-approved facilitator for the hostage-for-prisoner exchange talks. Now, she said on Sunday, she is facing treason charges. AgÃ©nce France Presse reports:
In Bogota, Cordoba said Sunday she was being investigated by her country’s Supreme Court for treason.
“They notified me yesterday; I am being investigated for treason and collusion,” Cordoba told Radio Caracol from Caracas. She did not say if the charges against her were related to her work as mediator or to unrelated allegations.
This, if accurate, is shocking. Senator CÃ³rdoba worked hard to forge a path toward a negotiated deal with the guerrillas, a task she was authorized to carry out. Her many critics may disagree with the way she performed this role, but to bring up such charges now smells like dirty politics.
3. This is exactly what the FARC would want. The guerrillas themselves must be pleased to be the cause of a genuine international crisis. It shows them to be politically influential, while offering hope that the crisis will distract the Colombian government from the internal conflict. Neither government should give them this advantage.
4. The presidents should meet again. A war of words in the media is a bad idea. Before things get too out of hand, another “summit” meeting is needed in order to paper over differences and smooth ruffled feathers. Let’s hope both countries’ foreign ministries are working on this right now.