Many Uribistas were surprised when the international media and, to a lesser extent, the Colombian public reacted skeptically to Colombia’s recent decision to “expose” the FARC’s presence in Venezuela. According to the president’s supporters, those who criticize the decision want to “appease” Chavez and “ignore” the FARC for the sake of restoring diplomatic and trade relations with Venezuela.
This is a deep misunderstanding of the views of most Uribe critics. Nobody wants to “appease” Chavez. The very notion of “appeasement” implies that Venezuela
is bent on doing harm to Colombia and that there is little that Uribe or Santos can do to change that. If that were true, then I would dismiss any policy that made Colombia vulnerable to Chavez’s potential aggressions. But I, along with a significant minority Colombians, doubt that the Chavez government is inherently
threatening to Colombia and thus, to reconcile with Chavez does not amount to appeasement.
Similarly, nobody is suggesting that Colombia “ignore” the FARC. After all, the main reason behind President Uribe’s unprecedented popularity has been the public’s strong support for his hard-line policies against the guerrillas. It would make little sense for public opinion to suddenly shift in favor of a more tolerant policy toward the rebels, simply for the sake of restoring trade with Venezuela.
Instead, what Uribe’s critics believe is that launching dangerous accusations against the Chavez government is not helpful in the fight against the FARC. Why? The answer is simple: Chavez is not deliberately aiding the FARC. In short, the disagreements between Uribe’s critics and his supporters mainly lie in different interpretations of the relationship between Chavez and the FARC. If I believed Chavez to be actively supporting the guerrillas, then I would support any action by Colombia to hold Venezuela accountable for it, even if it were awkwardly timed and came at the expense of trade and diplomatic relations.
In reality, however, the guerrillas are as much a security threat in Western Venezuela as in Eastern Colombia. Colombia’s strategy should therefore be to
establish a collaborative relationship with Venezuela so that both countries can work together to solve a common security problem. Recently, France and Spain reached such an agreement with Chavez to eliminate ETA cells in Venezuela, even as right-wing naysayers accused the Europeans of naïveté. Moreover, the Chavez government is already working with Bogotá to battle drug trafficking groups and has deported several important mafia kingpins to Colombia.
One could be forgiven for believing the Hollywoodesque notion that Chavez is somehow working with the FARC to do harm to Colombia. The Colombian government and especially the media have done a remarkable job at perpetuating the myth of a collaborative relationship between Chavez and the FARC. And yet, in the border towns of Venezuela where the guerrillas have a significant presence, few people are accusing their own government of financing or otherwise aiding the rebels.
Instead, most Venezuelans see the FARC and other Colombian armed groups as evidence of Chavez’s broader failure in the area of citizen security.
Of course, Chavez has not helped his own image by occasionally expressing sympathy for the FARC’s original, long-lost political aims. Then again, so has President Lula of Brazil, whom no reasonable people accuse of aiding the guerrillas. More importantly, Chavez has also called the FARC’s current war outdated and encouraged the group to disarm.
Then there is the supposed “evidence” of a collaborative relationship. However, as I have written on many occasions, the mere presence of the FARC in Venezuela simply proves that Chavez is doing a poor job of guaranteeing his country’s security and confirms the natural tendency of drug-running armed groups to migrate according to convenience. Right-wing paramilitary groups and apolitical drug gangs are also operating in Venezuela, so why is Bogotá not accusing Chavez of sheltering them, too?
No other piece of evidence presented over the past eight years is even slightly more convincing. Somewhat recently, the FARC were found to be in possession of Swedish weapons originally sold to Venezuela many years ago. But the original sale happened long before Chavez became president. Besides, the FARC have plenty of weapons that originally belonged to a wide variety of countries, including Colombia. Why are we supposed to assume that the rebels acquired the aged weapons directly from the Venezuelan government and not, as is usually the case, through theft or petty bribery?
Finally, when push comes to shove, not even the Colombian government itself is willing to accuse Chavez of supporting the FARC. Every now and then, a Colombian official will verbally imply as much. But in more serious contexts, including official communications with the OAS, the government steers well clear of even implying a collaborative or supportive relationship between Venezuela and the FARC.
Chavez may be an incompetent, autocratic and downright disastrous president, but there is little evidence that he is a significant supporter of the FARC or ELN. Those who believe that there is a collaborative relationship between Venezuela and Colombian guerrillas have done a shockingly poor job of looking at the evidence and the facts. If such a relationship existed, I would wholeheartedly support Colombia’s recent behavior. But that is simply not the case.
Unfortunately, when it comes to relations between Bogotá and Caracas, the facts take a backseat to political posturing. Every day that passes now is yet another episode of the tired, self-reinforcing and remarkably destructive Uribe vs. Chavez show. I never thought I would say this, but I cannot wait for Santos’s inauguration.