Last week our editor suggested, teasingly, that President Hugo
Chávez of Venezuela was reading my columns, and that he seemed to
disagree. Although the Colombia Reports readership is growing, I really
doubt that Mr. Chávez can be counted among them –he doesn’t speak
English, for one. Yet, I am certain that if President Chávez would ever
read this week’s column, he would unquestionably disagree, too. We
must be doing something right, then
But let’s get down to business. A recent article in the newsweekly Semana maintained that Colombian foreign policy needed a “strategy” to get out of the mess there is with Venezuela and Ecuador. The already broken relations between Bogota and Quito suffered a big blow after AP released the ‘Mono Jojoy’ video, last week. On its side, the Venezuelan government growled, predictably, when the military agreement between Colombia and the US was made public. On Wednesday, President Chávez’s announcement that he would “review” ties with Colombia, and his subsequent threats of strengthening Venezuela’s military, spelled the end of the fragile and hypocritical truce there was between the two neighbors.
All of a sudden, we are back in July of 2008, before the last time Presidents Uribe and Chávez hugged and reconciled. Exporters, politicians and pundits are understandably nervous about the situation, especially after Mr. Chávez declared that Venezuela would need to buy “elsewhere” what it usually buys from Colombia. With a balance of trade that favors Colombia heavily (trade between the two countries amounted to US$ 7.2 billion in 2008, of which US$ 6 billion were Colombian exports to Venezuela), Mr. Chávez seeks to hit his neighbor where it really hurts. Knowing that President Uribe wants to keep trade flowing across the border, commercial restrictions on Colombian products will be among Mr. Chávez’s most important bargaining chips in this impasse.
More worrying, however, is the talk about ‘war’ and ‘invasion’ coming out of President Chávez’s mouth: “God forbid a war! … But that is not up to us… We are ready to die, but Venezuela will never ever again be a Yankee colony, or anybody else’s” he said last Wednesday. The Venezuelan President added later that he will double the number of “tank battalions” under his command, duly notifying the Russians, his main weapons suppliers, of his decision.
Concurring with Semana, the Colombian government needs a roadmap. It is time for smart actions in order to make sure that the effects of this new diplomatic crisis can be contained. But first, let us point out a few things that simple common sense tells us will happen: nobody should be expecting a normalization of relations between the Venezuelan and the Colombian governments anytime soon. Mr. Chávez can keep grudges in his heart for very long periods, and a heightened American military presence in Colombia is such an affront in his eyes that he won’t make peace with the Uribe administration for as long as the US troops remain there. Also, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Mr. Chávez will grow even closer in their contempt for Colombia. Expect meetings between the two men and joint press conferences about the US base deal and the threat it represents –perhaps even an emergency summit of that mighty regional alliance, the ALBA. Finally, there can be no doubt that Colombian products will have a harder time to be sold to Venezuela and Ecuador (not a new situation, really), which combined with the recent appreciation of the peso will hit exporters and Colombia’s economy pretty badly.
But Colombia must not despair. Luckily, Venezuela and Ecuador are not the only two countries in this hemisphere, and it is time for the Uribe government to start strengthening its bonds with many of them. Mexico, Peru and now Panama, under President Martinelli, are Colombia’s natural allies. With Panama, there have been small rows over contraband, and that country recently toughened, albeit slightly, its requirements for Colombians who want to travel there –all this needs to be left in the past. Mr. Martinelli has been an advocate of bandwagoning against Mr. Chávez and he should be eager to befriend the Colombian government.
President Uribe should send Jaime Bermúdez, Colombia’s Foreign Minister, to visit these countries soon. Mr. Bermúdez must explain the Colombian point of view to these governments, and give interviews to the press. He must continue to maintain that Colombia is a peace-loving nation that means no threat to any of its neighbors. President Uribe would do well if he also ordered Mr. Bermúdez to visit Chile, a country with whom Colombia recently signed a Free Trade Agreement, and that is also sympathetic to Mr. Uribe’s government. In these nations, Mr. Bermúdez will have friendly audiences.
But this grand tour would be incomplete without Latin America’s natural great power: Brazil. But this time, it is President Uribe himself, and not Minister Bermúdez, who should visit Luiz Inácio Lula. Bar Hugo Chávez’s club of minions, the Brazilians are the ones who dislike the US base deal the most. Brazil wants to emerge as the unquestionable leader of Latin America, and they are uneasy about too much US influence in the region. Moreover, considering President Lula’s reluctant closeness to Mr. Chávez, the Colombian government must woo politicians in Brasilia with vigor. Brazil, above all the rest, must be reassured about the military base deal with the Americans. The message from the Colombian government must be that the agreement is nothing more than another phase of the battle against drugs, and that it does not represent a new effort to extend Washington’s influence in Latin America. Although I do not see President Lula’s government taking sides with Colombia in all this, the least President Uribe must do is to see that Brazil does not side with Venezuela and Ecuador. Keep the giant in the middle.
All these actions, if carried successfully, will show President Chávez that Colombia is not as isolated as he loves to repeat. Colombia is not the Israel of Latin America –rather, his country is the region’s Iran. It also seems that President Chávez is lending Colombia a hand by using his sharp tongue against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and retaking the old “empire” rhetoric he loves. Criticizing American foreign policy is a guilty pleasure that President Chávez will never overcome, even with Barack Obama in the White House. That should pull Colombia closer to the United States, and in this respect Colombia is lucky: Chávez can whine, yell, threaten, close the border, buy more tanks, call Mr. Uribe names, and swear to the heavens that he will go to war, but as far as America is on Colombia’s side, he will never dare shoot a gun against us. Let’s keep it that way.
Author Gustavo Silva is Colombian and studies
Public Policy and International Affairs at Princeton University in the
U.S. He has his personal weblog.