With little over two weeks before the end of his term, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is increasing pressure on Venezuela about the country’s alleged negligence towards FARC rebels hiding in the socialist country. Why is he not leaving this to incoming President Juan Manuel Santos?
Uribe is diplomatically attacking Venezuela in a way as if he doesn’t have anything to lose, but is risking that Santos assumes the presidency in the middle of a diplomatic crisis he didn’t really start. In fact, Santos has been very leniant towards neighbors and has shown he is mostly interested in improving relations with Venezuela.
Despite widespread rumors that there may be a difference in opinion between the outgoing and incoming presidents it is most likely that Santos is aware of Uribe’s tactics and that Uribe is very much taking into account what he is leaving Santos.
What we are looking at seems to be a good cop / bad cop scenario.
Before his election, Santos was a highly unpopular figure in both Ecuador and Venezuela and seemed to have very little chance to improve relations with Colombia’s neighbors. After all, it was under Santos as Defense Minister that armed troops violated international law and attacked FARC-guerrillas on Ecuadorean territory without informing Ecuadorean authorities. Uribe on several occasions was forces to shut Santos up when remarks made by the then-Defense Minister caused outrage in Venezuela.
Without some very smart moves, Santos’ foreign policy in Latin America could easily be frustrated by Chavez and Colombia would be left even more politically isolated than it is already, something that would not be in the interest of Colombia or Santos or Uribe.
To improve Santos’ stature abroad and Colombia’s chances to rebuild relations with its neighbors, it is highly desirable that Uribe assumes the role of scapegoat for past international crises and Santos to step in with a less aggressive, more building-bridges-like discourse. And this seems to be exactly what is going on.
Following his election in June, Santos started a diplomatic offensive. First he went to Europe to strengthen ties with allies overseas. On Wednesday, the President-elect went on a Latin American tour that does not just include conservative governments like that of Mexico and Peru, but also Argentina, which has become an ally of Chavez under the Presidency of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Santos repeatedly said one of the priorities of his government would be to improve relations with neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela and has seen two prominent members of his cabinet go to Ecuador to improve relations, resulting in the attendance of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa at the inauguration of Santos.
But while Santos was harvesting the fruits sown by Uribe’s Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez over the past few years, Uribe and his Defense Minister Gabriel Silva pulled out the biggest diplomatic guns in what seemed to be a final offensive to completely destroy any hope for good relations with Venezuela.
In an obvious hurry, Uribe took his terrorist support allegations to the OAS and demanded the crisis to be handled publicly, obviously putting an immense amount of pressure on Chavez and pushing the Venezuelan Head of State in the defense.
Santos wisely is not getting involved in this pissing contest between the sort-of conservative Uribe and the sort-of socialist Chavez.
However, it is unlikely that Uribe is not continuously informing Santos on his moves. It may even be so that this diplomatic offensive is a joint strategy to improve Santos’ position when dealing with Venezuela.
This strategy seems to be working. On two occasions, Chavez mentioned a rift between Uribe and Santos, a scenario that was conveniently and simultaneously backed by analys articles in Colombian news publications Semana, El Tiempo and El Espectador and UK magazine The Economist.
But what really seems to be going on is that Uribe is paving the way for his successor and is weakening Chavez’s international credibility while he can, so that when Santos takes office he will not be impeded by a bullying Chavez, can continue to improve relations with strategic Chavez allies like Argentina and Ecuador and can continue the anti-FARC security policy so successfully carried out by the outgoing president.