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What’s Behind the Colombia-Venezuela Battle Royale

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is once again accusing Colombia and the U.S. government of plotting to topple him. But it's really Chávez who poses a threat to peace in the region.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Colombia and Venezuela squared off Thursday in Quito, Ecuador, at an emergency meeting of the foreign ministers of the Union of South American States (Unasur), a recently created regional political and security association. The meeting was called by Ecuador, and was to be chaired by Unasur Secretary General Nestor Kirchner, the former president of Argentina, as the regional players attempt to defuse what has become a dangerous and growing crisis. However, it appears that many Latin American states are trying to keep their distance from this dispute: Several countries were represented by their deputy foreign ministers, and Kirchner himself pulled out at the last minute.

This crisis began when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez  broke diplomatic relations with Colombia on July 22, immediately after Colombia’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, Alfonso Hoyos, charged that the Chávez government is allowing more than 1,500 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Marxist guerrilla group better known as the FARC, to live unmolested in 87 clandestine camps in Venezuelan territory.

Chávez denied Colombia’s accusations, and dismissed Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who leaves office on August 7, as a "mafioso and liar." Chávez depicted Venezuela as the "victim" of an international conspiracy orchestrated by the Colombian and U.S. governments, claiming that the United States is planning a military invasion of Venezuela, via Colombia, with the purpose of killing him, toppling his socialist regime, and seizing his country’s oil and gas resources.

Chávez expected to trump Colombia at the Unasur meeting by organizing a regional coalition to compel Colombia to accept Venezuela’s "peace plan" for the country. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has been meeting his Unasur counterparts in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, and others to drum up support for this measure. In reality, Chávez wants the Colombian government to open peace negotiations with the FARC, hoping to distract international attention from Venezuela’s active collaboration with the militant group.

Uribe, however, has plans of his own. On July 27, he shot down Venezuela’s suggestions, arguing that legitimate democratic governments should never negotiate with narco-terrorists. The FARC is a criminal organization that kills and kidnaps innocent people, recruits children by force, manufactures bombs and land mines, and engages in extortion, drug trafficking and arms smuggling, he added. (He also denied that his country had any plans to invade Venezuela.)

Uribe also said that Colombia will continue to press Venezuela in all venues, including Unasur, to take immediate action to detain or destroy FARC forces in Venezuelan territory. In line with this policy, he demanded that Venezuela comply with its obligations and responsibilities under international law and numerous treaties to destroy any narco-terrorist forces inside its national territory.

Furthermore, the Colombian government has called on the OAS and Unasur to physically verify Colombia’s charges against the Chávez government within 30 days — no later than August 22 — by sending international teams of experts to inspect the locations of the 87 FARC camps in Venezuela.

Finally, Uribe has announced that Colombia is prepared to cooperate immediately with the judicial authorities of other Latin American states to battle the FARC’s presence in those countries. According to Colombia, the group is present in seven countries besides Venezuela and Colombia.

Of course, Chávez will seek to block Colombia’s proposals at every turn. Though the Venezuelan strongman denies it, the truth of the matter is that he has been allied with the group since 1995. For all Chávez’s claims that the Colombian government is trying to start a war with its eastern neighbor, the real aggressor in this relationship has always been the Venezuelan president.

The FARC has operated freely in Venezuela since Chávez took power in February 1999, but it did not establish a permanent presence in Venezuelan territory until 2003. The intelligence disclosed by Ambassador Hoyos charges that the FARC has launched more than 60 separate attacks against targets in Colombia from its camps in Venezuelan territory since 2007.

According to Hoyos, the FARC is also using its camps to train citizens of Venezuela and seven other countries in guerrilla warfare, bomb-making, kidnapping and drug trafficking. Top FARC leaders and militants in Venezuelan territory also receive official protection, false Venezuelan identity papers, weapons, transportation and other benefits from officials of Venezuela’s armed forces and intelligence services, he alleged.

Chávez claims that he broke diplomatic relations with Colombia for reasons of "national dignity." But if Colombia were making false accusations against Venezuela, the obvious choice would be to invite OAS observers to rebut Colombia’s lies. Instead, by breaking ties with Bogotá and charging that Venezuela is the victim of an international conspiracy, Chávez chose his usual route of bluster and threats over transparency.

Don’t expect Colombia to back down. The country’s incoming president, Juan Manuel Santos, will continue the international diplomatic offensive against the Chávez government that his precessor launched at the OAS.

Colombian officials have a few strong options. They have said that Bogotá could bring charges against Chávez’s government at the International Criminal Court, since the documented FARC attacks on Colombia launched from Venezuela resulted in the deaths of many innocent civilians. Colombia could also take its case to the U.N. Security Council. There is no doubt that the Chávez regime is violating more than a dozen OAS and U.N. resolutions and treaties that call on states to support democracy, battle international drug traffickers and terrorists, and avoid interfering in the affairs of other countries.

Will Colombia’s strategy work? Experience has taught the country’s leaders that the FARC and its supporters never negotiate in good faith, and the best defense against them is a robust and sustained military and diplomatic campaign.

This conflict is not a normal border dispute between two peaceful neighbors. Under Chávez’s increasingly authoritarian regime, Venezuela has become a supporter of terrorists and a growing threat to its neighbors. Colombia is an embattled but thriving democracy that has made great strides in respect for human rights and freedom. Colombians deserves the support of the democratic nations of this hemisphere.

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