Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez have had yet another heated spat in Cancun. Even if the host president, Felipe Calderon, organises the creation of a “group of friends” to help resolve the dispute, there can be no lasting solution. The election of a new Colombian president is needed.
The recent regional summit in Cancun between the Rio Group and the Caribbean Community may signify a turning point for the integration of Latin America, excluding the U.S. and Canada; the Falkland islands oil drilling dispute; and relations between Colombia and Venezuela. These three issues are difficult to resolve. But the personal dispute between Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez is perhaps the least likely to benefit from regional attention.
The spat between Uribe and Chavez took many by surprise, since it was Uribe who according to sources started the heated discussion with Chavez. The Colombian president remonstrated with Chavez for the quasi-trade embargo on Colombia. Chavez appeared to question this, but Uribe interrupted him. Chavez then threatened to walk out of the room and Uribe, in his characteristic rowdy style, shouted “be a man! These issues are meant to be discussed at these forums. You’re brave speaking at a distance, but a coward when it comes to talking face to face.” Chavez could only respond with “go to hell.”
Uribe’s quarrelsome behavior may appear polite when it is compared with Chavez’ weekly thug-like outbursts. But in the past Uribe has challenged the manhood of former staff and has come to blows with political opponents. In 2007, Uribe was heard threatening a former member of staff, saying “I’m very upset with you … and if I see you I’m going to punch your face, faggot.” And on election day for the governorship of the Antioquia department on October 30, 1994, Uribe was edging 4,000 votes ahead of an opponent who was supported by Uribe’s old political rival Fabio Valencia Cossio. When Uribe saw Cossio in the Register’s office amid a hard-fought vote count, he thought Cossio was trying to influence the count and punched him. Cossio, now Uribe’s Interior and Justice Minister, masterminded the passing of the re-election referendum bill in Congress.
Despite the parallels, the relations between Uribe and Chavez will never end in this way; even if after the dispute in Cancun, Mexican President Felipe Calderon called for the creation of a “group of friends” to help Venezuela and Colombia resolve their differences. The group consists of Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Nonetheless, these reconciliation efforts are important, especially coming from this summit where 31 state leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean were present.
Nevertheless, there are two main reasons why this dispute will not be resolved by the efforts, however commendable, of neighboring countries. Firstly, this issue was transformed a long time ago from a difficult diplomatic dispute between Colombia and Venezuela to a personal row between two specimens of Latin male-chauvinist behavior. Therefore, personal insults, mainly instigated by Chavez towards Uribe, will not be rapidly forgotten by these two very proud individuals.
Secondly, the exacerbation of the problems between Colombia and Venezuela has been caused by Chavez’s overreaction and paranoia over the access to seven military bases Uribe granted the U.S. Such paranoia may well be a genuine sentiment, but it is also a useful card to play when his internal support is weakening. Chavez’s desire to normalize relations after the spat will be short-lived, as it has been on many previous occasions.
This new public spat is in dramatic contrast to the improving diplomatic relations between Colombia and Ecuador. This improvement has been aided by the efforts of both governments to normalize the relations and therefore the utilization of diplomatic channels rather than the use of “microphone diplomacy.” Even Uribe demonstrated impressive self-restraint when publicly addressing the situation with Venezuela, something not always imitated by his ministers. Therefore, if the story of the heated discussion in Cancun is to be believed, one may need to ask what triggered Uribe’s undiplomatic verbal exchanges.
Recent developments such as the Human Rights Watch report on the neo-paramilitary bands, the probable unconstitutionality of the re-election referendum, the revelations that Uribe allegedly knew of the DAS illegal wiretapping, and the improvised reforms of Colombia’s health system may be affecting Uribe personally. They have certainly affected public support for a third re-election.
This new incident in Cancun may be indicative of Colombia’s need for a new president with fresh ideas and without baggage from the current government. Yet, this incident may also be interpreted by the average Colombian as showing that only Uribe, or Juan Manuel Santos, can deal with Chavez.