There is strong evidence that Uribe is trying to undermine Santos’s surprisingly conciliatory diplomatic initiatives. In the long run, however, Uribe will fail.
Juan Manuel Santos and Alvaro Uribe will try to deny it, but the tensions between the president-elect and his mentor are real. This week, Colombia sent documents to the OAS proving that several FARC and ELN guerrilla leaders were in Venezuela, and suggested that the Chavez government was sheltering them. Colombian officials were fully aware that reviving these age-old accusations would undermine Santos’s efforts to reconcile with the Venezuela. But they did it anyway.
Just a few weeks ago, most observers expected the transition from Uribe to Santos to go smoothly, especially in the area of foreign relations. After all, Santos was the outgoing president’s chosen successor. As Uribe’s defense minister, he was at the frontline of the government’s most complicated diplomatic crises. On the campaign trail, Santos did claim that he would improve relations with Venezuela, but so did every other candidate. Indeed, given his personal role in Colombia’s several rows with Venezuela, Santos seemed almost certain to maintain Uribe’s combative approach to relations with Hugo Chavez.
Surprisingly, however, Santos has spent much of the past few weeks laying the foundation for the normalization of relations with Venezuela. He invited Chavez to his inauguration and repeatedly expressed a genuine interest in improving bilateral relations. His choice for foreign minister, Maria Angela Holguin, is a former ambassador to Venezuela and is well respected in Caracas (she has also had public disagreements with President Uribe). Even Chavez, who thrives on controversy and conflict, admitted that he was pleased with Santos’s approach and expected that bilateral relations would improve under the new Colombian president.
The relationship could certainly use some improvement. During his two terms in office, Uribe has repeatedly exchanged insults, ugly accusations and virtual declarations of war with the Venezuelan strongman. Occasionally, the two have shook hands and made up, only to start the process all over again. After eight years, their political disagreements have become increasingly personal. It is likely, therefore, that Uribe was not pleased to discover that one of Santos’s top priorities in the days before his inauguration has been to re-establish a sense of mutual trust and respect with the Venezuelan president.
So, when Colombia officially accused Venezuela of sheltering FARC rebels in the last week, it seemed less like a genuine security concern and more like an attempt by Uribe to place curbs on Santos’ more conciliatory approach to foreign relations. If that was the intent, then Uribe has succeeded, at least for now: Chavez, clearly offended by the mixed messages coming from Bogota, has (yet again) suspended diplomatic relations with Colombia and said that he will not attend Santos’s inauguration.
Several aspects of Colombia’s complaint to the OAS are quite odd and contribute to growing speculation of an Uribe-Santos rift. One is the bizarre timing of the whole thing. The Colombian government has long claimed that Venezuela shelters the FARC and has often pointed to evidence of guerrilla leaders’ presence in the neighboring country. Why, then, did Colombia choose to issue a formal complaint now, just as the president-elect is preparing high-level talks with the Chavez government? Even if the new intelligence were of unprecedented significance (which is highly doubtful), the logical thing to do would have been to wait a few days until Santos’s inauguration. In this way, the government would have avoided destabilizing diplomatic relations during the transition and would have allowed the new administration to handle the issue.
Further, it is unclear what exactly Colombia hoped to achieve by issuing an official complaint. The OAS itself is unlikely to do anything beyond reprimanding the Chavez government for not doing enough to pursue the guerrillas. In that case, Chavez will probably dismiss the whole thing as slander; he has already called the OAS an irrelevant and politically biased organization. Perhaps the only concrete consequence of Colombia’s accusations will be to anger the Venezuelan president.
Finally, the way Colombia has presented the latest evidence seems deliberately designed to provoke, anger, and dishonestly accuse Chavez of supporting Colombian guerrillas. I say dishonestly because, judging by top Colombian officials’ own behavior, nobody actually believes Chavez is an active supporter of the FARC. As president, Uribe spent eight years primarily (some would say excessively) focused on fighting the FARC. By most accounts, the guerrilla group is behind the murder of his father. Santos, meanwhile, drove an aggressive campaign against the FARC leadership that included a bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuadorean territory. If Santos and Uribe really thought Chavez supported the FARC, it would be nonsensical for them to ever contemplate normalizing relations with him, much less invite him to Santos’ inauguration.
Moreover, the “evidence” the Colombians presented does not come anywhere near to proving active Venezuelan support for the FARC. Many Colombian armed groups – leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and apolitical drug gangs – run cocaine trafficking routes through neighboring countries and, to avoid persecution by the Colombian military, they often find it convenient to take temporary refuge there.
By the same reasoning with which the Colombians accuse Chavez of sheltering the FARC, they could also accuse Venezuela (and, for that matter, Ecuador and probably Peru and Brazil) of sheltering Los Rastrojos, the Aguilas Negras, and a handful of prominent drug traffickers.
Finally, supporting the FARC is not in Chavez’s own interests. The Venezuelan president, of course, likes to provoke Colombia by expressing vague admiration for the FARC’s “revolutionary” ideals. But Chavez is pragmatic, and certainly not stupid.
He has little to gain and plenty to lose from supporting the FARC. Even if his main goal were to overthrow the Colombian government, which it is not, the FARC would make mediocre allies. They are not a particularly formidable army and, these days, they are primarily preoccupied with drug trafficking. Moreover, the fact that the FARC have a deservedly bad reputation worldwide would certainly hurt Chavez’s all-important international publicity campaign.
In sum, by issuing a formal complaint, Colombia is achieving little more than angering Chavez. The latest evidence provides very little new information and is unlikely to result in any concrete action by the OAS. This, combined with the odd timing of Colombia’s complaint, suggests that Uribe officials may be deliberately sabotaging Santos’ new diplomatic aspirations.
Fortunately, if that is indeed the intent, then Uribe and his top officials will fail. Over the years, Venezuela (and Colombia) has shown a willingness to let bygones be bygones. Even the mobilization of troops to the Colombia-Venezuela border did not preclude later attempts at reconciliation. Already, Chavez has said he is willing to reopen the dialogue with Colombia after Santos is inaugurated. Ecuadorean president and close Chavez ally Rafael Correa has said he will attend Santos’ inauguration, and Santos is still hopeful that the Venezuelan president will change his mind and do the same.
Despite these recent attempts at sabotage, Uribe’s aggressive approach to foreign relations is unlikely to outlast his two-term presidency, and that is something that both Colombians and Venezuelans can be happy about.