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Colombian Attack Sets Off Unexpected Alarms Around South America

(March 5, 2008) On Sunday Colombia's military bombed a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) military camp in Ecuadorian territory. The attack killed an estimated 23 rebel combatants, including FARC's second in command, Luis Edgar Devia, a.k.a. Raúl Reyes, reportedly the first secretariat member to be killed in combat during more than 40 years of civil war. The attack also set off a string of repercussions across the hemisphere as regional governments reacted to the apparently undisputed invasion of a foreign nation.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reacted unexpectedly to the attack on Ecuador by mobilizing his military to the border with Colombia and ordering the border sealed to all traffic, severing all diplomatic and commercial relations between the two nations. Ecuador expelled Colombia's ambassador and severed diplomatic ties but has left commercial ones open so far.

Colombia responded to these actions by releasing incriminating evidence they claim was found on computers recovered from the rebel camp alleging that Chavez had given the FARC US$300 million and that Correa's administration had secret negotiations with the revolutionaries..

So what was Colombia thinking? Was President Uribe acting on the presumption that this attack would be viewed in the context of past cross-border strikes that went largely unnoticed, or was it an intentional provocation?

Given the close commercial relationship between the two countries (Ecuador is Colombia's #3 trading partner and vice-versa) and the more or less historically good diplomatic relations between the two, it is unlikely that the attack was meant as a direct provocation. However, Colombia's subsequent allegations against Ecuador and Venezuela, whether accurate or not, raise the proverbial ante in what could have been a minor conflict.

If those claims are true, both accused governments will have a difficult time explain their actions, if not, Colombia has committed a truly clumsy mistake. In either case, the public nature of the accusations have ruined diplomatic relations between the neighbors for the immediate future and will inevitably have negative consequences on regional integration efforts.

By far, the most extraordinary aspect of the crisis so far is President Chavez's reaction. He has gone out of his way to escalate the conflict, seemingly at the expense of his own personal and national interests, reacting disproportionately to what is essentially a conflict between his neighbors.

Several factors could explain his actions: his role in the ongoing hostage negotiations with the FARC; his general desire to exert more political power in the region; his personal dislike of President Uribe; or the rapidly deteriorating socioeconomic situation inside Venezuela itself.

The socio-economic crisis is worth emphasizing because even the more reserved The Economist has suggested that Chavez may go as far as outright hostilities to distract the Venezuelan public from local politics. Chavez's theory that the attack was part of a U.S. backed effort against left-wing governments in the region is the apparent justification for his actions. But given that Quito has recently distanced itself from Caracas and appears to be staking a more moderate line in its regional politics, this line of thought seems misdirected.

If we assume for a moment that Colombia's claims that Chavez has given US$300 million to the FARC is true, it would mean that Chavez has his own plan to destabilize regional relations by supporting regime change in Colombia. In this scenario, the last few months of escalating anti-Colombian rhetoric may be part of a plan to justify a "pre-emptive strike" a la Bush against Uribe's government.

On a regional level, the differing positions taken by member nations at the special session of the OAS were an interesting illustration of interAmerican international relations. While the majority of South American nations are viewing the conflict in terms of national sovereignty, the U.S. has given its unconditional support for Colombia's right to defend itself against terrorism. Both positions are in keeping with the overall strategic interests of the respective nations.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the March 27-28 Unasur Summit of South American Presidents where a detailed institutional charter was scheduled to be signed. If it is not cancelled, the dispute makes it unlikely that the summit will achieve much in terms of new integration efforts, at least until three of its members stop accusing the other of genocide.

By Nathan Gill - Southern Affairs


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