10 March 2008

Counting the Chips: Political Solution Reached Between Ecuador and Colombia

(March 10, 2008) The crisis that erupted last week over Colombia's bombing of a FARC base camp inside Ecuador seems to have come to an end. A political solution was reached between the region's foreign ministers at the OAS special session while a more personal agreement was reached between the presidents of several Latin American nations at the Rio Group summit in Santo Domingo.

The whole crisis, from invasion to resolution took one week. During that time Venezuela mobilized 85 percent of its military to the border with Colombia, severed diplomatic and commercial relations, and traded verbal insults with Colombia's president in what is being called a microphone war. Ecuador also mobilized thousands of troops, severed diplomatic relations, and threatened severing commercial relations as well. Both nations have now taken steps to normalize relations with Colombia.

From Ecuador's national perspective, it achieved what it wanted. Colombia made a formal apology, it set a strong precedent against future cross—border attacks, and achieved a political victory by putting the long-ignored issue of Colombian territorial infringement in the global spotlight. What it was unable to achieve in the last eight years of formal diplomatic complaints it achieved in one week of special meetings around the region. Yet this victory came at a price.

When news of the attack came out Ecuador's President Correa kept to the diplomatic playbook, cautioned patience until all the facts were available, and seemed on track to treat the incursion as yet another border violation in Colombia's war against the FARC. It was not until Venezuela's president Chavez ordered up 10 battalions of troops on his weekly TV and Radio program that Correa seemed to get offended. From then on he was one step behind Chavez, even though his country was the one that got bombed. That, coupled with Correa's ongoing relationship with Chavez's 21st Century Socialism, has confirmed Correa's subordinate role to Chavez.

While this is no real surprise, it doesn’t help Correa at home where the Ecuadorian population is anxiously waiting to find out what kind of country Correa's Constitutional Assembly has in store for them. The Ecuadorian assembly, modeled after Venezuela's Constitutional Assembly, has so far been vague about the specifics of the new constitution but has repeatedly sought to reassure Ecuadorians that it is independent of Venezuela influence. Correa's actions undermined their position.

This is no ideal point considering the economic and legal reforms enacted by Venezuela's constitutional assembly have created widespread shortages of basic food products like eggs and milk, a drastic decrease in foreign investment in all market sectors, and a decrease in oil production and exploration, the primary source of Venezuela's national income. For Ecuador, the crisis was a reminder of the close relationship between their president and Venezuela's and the potential dangers of the new constitution.

Another issue highlighted by the crisis was the functional disconnect within the diplomatic process itself. When the OAS council reached an agreement last Wednesday, both Ecuador and Colombia's foreign ministers said they were satisfied with the results. However, President Correa immediately spoke out against the agreement saying that Colombia would have to do much more before he was content to put an end to the conflict. After three more days of escalating tensions the two Presidents finally hugged and made up.

This illustrates the highly personal nature of regional diplomacy and emphasizes the relative weakness of lower level bureaucrats as well as high level ministers in national decision making, even when they are specifically delegated to make them like Ecuador's Foreign Minister was at the OAS. This phenomenon helps explain why the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) has achieved so little up to now. Every change in national political administration requires the negotiating process to begin over so that the new president can place his personal stamp on any agreement reached.

Finally, as a side point, the crisis highlighted how out of touch the United States is with the rest of the region. While the majority of the region, including Colombia viewed the attack as a violation of international law, President Bush reminded the region of how little the principle of national sovereignty matters to the U.S. by unconditionally backing Colombia, even after they admitted they were wrong. Furthermore, after offering unconditional support, Bush then spun the conflict as an example of why Colombia needs a free trade agreement with the U.S., touching on another very sensitive issue in U.S.-Latin American relations at a time when all it really had to do was keep quiet. Had the U.S. stayed neutral in what was obviously a bilateral conflict it would have avoided an unnecessary diplomatic loss and the further alienation of the region.


By Nathan Gill - Southern Affairs