24 March 2008

Ecuador Threatens More Diplomatic Problems with Colombia

(Mar. 24, 2008) The Colombian government announced Monday that the second man killed and removed during its attack on a FARC base camp in Ecuador territory was in fact Ecuadorian. The announcement seemed likely to trigger further diplomatic protests by Ecuador's government after President Rafael Correa threatened to reopen the case last Saturday if he found out that the attack had claimed the lives of any Ecuadorians.

The new turn of events comes after nearly a month of emergency meetings and special investigations by the Organization of American States that resulted in a joint resolution, signed by both Ecuador and Colombia that both rejected the Colombian incursion and outlined the process for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two. Even though both sides agreed to the resolution, Ecuador has since been unwilling to let the issue drop. Why not?

Last Friday, before news of the killed Ecuadorian made headlines President Correa said, "While the Colombian government's misinformation campaign continues we will not renew diplomatic relations, let the OAS come, let anyone who wants come, we will not renew relations with Colombia."*

This is a surprising attitude from a president who four days earlier signed an internationally brokered "peace deal" with one of his country's closest economic allies. Why is Correa so belligerent towards Colombia?

One reason is that while diplomatic relations with Colombia have been severed, commercial relations are still open. This means that Correa can continue to play the aggrieved victim without hurting his nation's economy and most importantly, continue to import Colombian fuel, without which Ecuador would face widespread energy shortages.

Given that conflict is a useful political tool, a shrewd politician can increase his popularity by calling on his citizens to unite in the face of a common "enemy." This strategy has been used successfully in the past by Venezuelan President Chavez and was an effective tool in the 2004 U.S. presidential elections. Because the constitutional reform process in Ecuador is not going according to plan and the national economy is showing signs of overheating due to the rapid increase in government spending in the last year, now is as good a time as any to distract Ecuadorians from their problems at home.

Accordingly, expect Correa to continue to escalate the "crisis" over the next two months as the Constitutional Assembly finishes the final text of the new national constitution. Also, given the significant financial difficulties facing Ecuador, we could also see a proposal to raise taxes against Colombian interests inside Ecuador, but this isn’t likely to go very far given the strong commercial lobbies on both sides of the border. Whatever the specific actions taken by Correa, he will certainly use this opportunity to raise Ecuador's (and his own) international profile.

By Nathan Gill - Southern Affairs

*“Mientras siga esa campaña de desinformación del Gobierno colombiano nosotros no reanudaremos relaciones diplomáticas, venga la OEA, venga quien le dé la gana, no reanudaremos relaciones con Colombia.”