Last Friday, the ministers of defense and foreign affairs of the twelve South American nations were to meet in Quito, the Ecuadorean capital. The Venezuelan government had made it clear that they wanted UNASUR to discuss the deal that allows 800 members of the American military to use seven Colombian army bases. Immediately, Colombia’s Foreign Minister, Jaime Bermúdez, and the Minister of Defense, Gabriel Silva, decided not to attend the summit. In a statement, Mr. Bermúdez said that such a discussion in UNASUR would not “be carried out in a tone of respect and objectivity”, given the recent insults made against Colombia by the Venezuelan government. Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, said the absence of Messrs. Bermúdez and Silva in Quito was “a big mistake.”
Mr. Maduro is wrong: Colombia’s big mistake is to remain a member of UNASUR. The Colombian ministers were right in deciding not to attend a summit that would be filled with unfriendliness and insults against them. Nobody wants to go to a meeting where they will be called a “crazy sniper” or a “wretch”, which are just some of the words that President Hugo Chavez has recently used against Messrs. Silva and Bermúdez. But what is not clear to me is why the Colombian government is expected to give explanations to South American states about a deal it signed with a third state. Colombia, as a sovereign, free nation, is endowed with the right to sign agreements and deals with whatever states it chooses, so far as they do not contradict international law or previous agreements signed by Colombia. Why must Colombia submit itself to scrutiny by other UNASUR nations on this matter? Why should the rest of South America have the privilege of questioning Colombia’s foreign and domestic policies?
What the legitimate government of Colombia decides to do within Colombian territory is nobody’s business but that of Colombians themselves. The privilege of shaping and deciding Colombian affairs rests with elected politicians and public officials in Bogota, not with the Presidents of Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Chile, or Suriname. Nobody has a say on the specifics of the US-Colombia base deal besides the signatory governments, and that is the way it ought to be. Hugo Chavez and his minions may want to discuss the base deal in a forum of nations that is generally sympathetic to their anti-Americanism. They can yell, threaten us, call us names, jump up and down, explode in anger, and nothing will change the fact that Colombia does not have to take their opinion into account. The US-Colombia deal will go on, and there is nothing UNASUR can do about it.
But this week’s meeting was a reminder that Colombia should leave UNASUR. That organization is a useless, biased bureaucracy that has been a continuous obstacle to Colombia’s national interest. Ever since the base deal was announced, UNASUR has served as a platform for Mr. Chavez’s criticism of it. Presidents Cristina Fernández of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador have all followed Venezuela’s script in one way or another. In addition, the fact that other leftist politicians preside over Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay makes it more difficult for Colombia to convince its sister nations that there is nothing they should fear about the base deal. Even President Alan García of Peru, who was exiled in Colombia for years, who has also been insulted by Mr. Chavez, and who now shares some of Mr. Uribe’s right-wing philosophy, has said he is concerned with the deal because it involved “a superpower” having access to South America. The inescapable conclusion is that region has become hostile territory for Colombia’s alliance with the United States.
In contrast, the rest of South America remains silent when President Chavez calls his people “to prepare for war” with Colombia. They shut up and look elsewhere when the autocrat of Caracas sends 15,000 troops to the border. They have nothing to say when Venezuelan soldiers use force against Colombian citizens and detonate two bridges used by civilians. UNASUR does not criticize Venezuela’s recklessness, or its closeness with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or its US$4 billion weapons purchases from the Russians. UNASUR does not care about these things. Colombia, on the other hand, must explain the reasons for and the specifics of its deal with the United States.
Leaving UNASUR would be an act of political bravery. Let the rest of South America understand that a union of the continent cannot be based on double standards and disregard for the interests of one of the member nations. Moreover, leaving the organization would not be the debacle some believe. UNASUR is worthless in any case, and Colombia obtains no economic or political benefit from it. Bogota will continue to have bilateral relations with each of the other South American countries (bar Venezuela) and all trade agreements with them will remain valid. By leaving, Colombia will send a clear signal that the country will have no more of UNASUR’s hypocrisy. And perhaps Colombia could join again in a few years, when some presidencies have shifted to the right and the political environment is less hostile.
In the meantime, Colombia can do without UNASUR. We do not need it, and it has become a real headache. All the insults and the double standards will not magically go away, of course. It is very likely that once Colombia’s seat is empty, some of our sister nations will keep talking trash about us – but at least they won’t have the pleasure of doing it to our face.