John Donne’s celebrated phrase “no man is an island” applies superbly to the current situation of Colombia’s foreign policy or, more precisely, its lack thereof. Although foreign relations have never been Colombia’s forte, the current government’s mismanagement has resulted in various diplomatic rows that have prompted opposition politicians to step in and mediate. Colombia’s neighbors have usually regarded these diplomatic episodes as blown out of proportion. Therefore, Colombia has seldom changed its strategy of restraining from engaging in the same verbal attacks of its neighbors that are more characteristic of hooligans than statesmen. Uribe, after all, felt safe enough with Bush’s unconditional support.
In Colombia this was widely applauded by supporters as well as opponents of Uribe’s government. With time, and with the sobering truth that Colombia and Venezuela share an economic dependency that is vital for both their governments’ popularity, the diplomatic standoffs were soon dissipated. The diplomatic row with Ecuador in 2008 received the same treatment, although at least Colombia correctly took advantage of an appropriate multilateral forum such as the ‘Latin American Summit’ to half-heartedly apologize for its military incursion into Ecuadorian territory on March 1. Colombia, therefore, has become conditioned to following the same strategy towards diplomatic difficulties regardless of their cause. In the process, it has neglected new and important regional spaces, such as the newly created UNASUR (Union of South American Nations), which provide an opportunity to solve and most importantly avoid regional confrontation.
The current diplomatic crises with Ecuador and Venezuela have followed the same plan of action. That is, until Brazil – usually restrained in such disputes – and Chile – a country that does not even share a border with Colombia – announced their reservations about the expansion of the U.S. military hub in Colombia. These reservations are not without evidence. Newly declassified U.S. documents demonstrate how Richard Nixon, the CIA and Brazilian President Medici coordinated interventions in Chile against leftist President Allende as well as other Latin American nations that could elect Castros or Allendes. These policies have not ceased altogether if the 2002 coup in Venezuela and the 2008 attempted coup in Bolivia are taken into account. Moreover, peoples of many countries in the region have firsthand experience – especially President Bachelet of Chile who was tortured together with her mother and father (who died) by Pinochet’s CIA backed government – of the atrocities military governments supported by the U.S. can perpetrate.
Chile and Brazil proposed the discussion of the “cooperation agreement” in the UNASUR summit that took place on August 10 in Ecuador, but Colombia immediately refused to attend. Uribe argued that the agreement was a sovereign issue and that “national dignity” prevented him from attending. The first reason would have had some validity if Colombia was really sovereign before the U.S. in this issue. Moreover, the concern of countries in the region is very understandable and the concerns that Colombian bases could be used for more than “finally ending drug-trafficking and terrorism” are not illegitimate. Nevertheless, the second reason only highlights how this crisis with Ecuador has become an egotistical issue for Uribe.
In the end, Uribe decided to visit all South American countries except Ecuador and Venezuela to explain the contentious agreement. Colombia’s lack of political will to find a solution to the crisis was further exposed by sending a junior official to the UNASUR summit, thus allowing Correa and Chavez to maintain their tirades unchecked. Had Uribe attended he could have argumentatively disarmed his opponents by exposing the solid links between Ecuador and Venezuela with the FARC, instead of leaking edited videos (and documents) to the media that only incites the governments involved to call their veracity into question and leaves Colombia looking like a duplicitous troublemaker.
By refusing to attend the summit last week, Colombia will be even more isolated. After all, UNASUR – a Brazilian idea – was created to foment the integration of South American countries. It was modeled on the European Union and has promising projects such as the Bank of the South and the South American Defense Council. The former seeks to end reliance on the International Monetary Fund, while the latter seeks to draft mechanism for regional security. Colombia joined both initiatives, albeit not at first instance. UNASUR scored its first success after supporting Bolivia’s president in the 2008 attempted coup. The new episode in the current diplomatic row between Colombia and its neighbors prompted by Colombia’s agreement with the U.S. could have served to strengthen UNASUR’s mandate, but this was clearly futile without Colombia attendance.
Now Uribe has another chance to face regional leaders at the end of the month when all meet in Argentina to address this issue. The delay, however, will only increase suspicion towards Colombia and its secretive military agreements with the U.S. Even Hillary Clinton’s remarks that this agreement would not affect other countries does not do much towards dissipating regional concerns, especially when the U.S. has been so ambivalent towards the situation in Honduras.
By choosing to hastily visit seven countries instead of facing regional leaders on August 10, President Uribe and his inexperienced Foreign Minister not only validated the failure of their foreign policy, but also undermined an important regional forum, which could actually isolate Colombia even more. Hopefully Uribe can start making use of the UNASUR special summit on August 28 to dissipate some of the steam that an ill-conceived military agreement with the U.S. has generated. It is time for the government to understand that Colombia is not an island and that nurturing only one bilateral relation is shortsighted.