Thursday, January 20, 2005

Jan20/05 - On Venezuela - Colombia political crisis

PMB Comment: as Colombia prepares to deliver - once again - evidence of FARC/ELN presence in Bolivarian Venezuela, the world will have to hold its collective breath and wait for the fallout. Under normal circumstances the OAS would say something, but given that it has become nothing more than a fancy party venue, nada can be expected (plus its magnificent Constitution Avenue headquarters must be a mess in the aftermath of the one of many Presidential Inauguration Balls to be held there today).

Once upon a time, the UN (that's the one with the nice building by the river in NY) would have seen the blatant harboring of terrorists in a highly volatile region as a matter of concern, but then today they are more interested in shielding Kofi Annan from the blow of the upcoming report on rampant corruption in the food-for-oil program that ended up benefiting Saddam more than others - at least till the US put an end to the scheme the hard way.

What about the neighbors? They might be concerned...but they will only act if it is to provide Chavez a final and definitive blow. If there is any chance the guy can survive and seek revenge by creating or funding more havoc in their domestic politics, they will play deaf, dumb or both.

And what about the US? It became clear - once again - that Dr. Rice understands the problem (which means the President does to), but can she afford to please Chavez by making this seem like a Chavez vs. Bush bout? I doubt it, but on the other hand the US cannot afford to have Plan Colombia/Patriot blunted by the reckless behavior of this counterfeit revolutionary. So we will have to wait and see what they do in DC.

That leaves us with President Uribe and more importantly the people of Venezuela. Will they alone be able to corner a regime that has opted to side with criminals under the cover of a fraudulent oil fueled mandate? In my opinion, it might be possible. Uribe is as obstinate as Chavez, and as a survivor he can probably access the risk of doing nothing once he has let the cat out of the bag. And while Venezuelans might have split their vote when the option was Chavez or the putrid past, when it comes to harboring guerillas and letting them vote in our elections there might be a different reaction. Let the truth flow, assume a principled outrage from the international community and I am certain you could once again see tumultuous marches in the streets of Venezuela.

Finally, a word of caution: Fidel Castro will not allow his life support to be cornered and disconnected that easily. Expect that the fan will be promptly turned on to high and ALL sorts of counter allegations procured by the highly efficient G2 will further complicate the matter. PMB

PD: below you can read two very good articles from The Economist and the FT on the matter at hand. Great reporting..

The Economist

Colombia and Venezuela

Neighbour dispute

Jan 20th 2005 | BOGOTÁ AND CARACAS
From The Economist print edition

A Colombian bounty hunt puts Hugo Chávez on the spot

RODRIGO GRANDA was scarcely a household name when in mid-December the Colombian police said they had arrested him in the city of Cúcuta, close to the border with Venezuela. With his cardigan and the air of a carefully groomed, middle-aged bank manager, he looked anything but a leader of the FARC, Colombia's main left-wing guerrilla group. But the FARC has acknowledged that Mr Granda was indeed a roving envoy for their movement, which figures on the United States' list of terrorist organisations.

The story might have ended there, as another success in the “war on terror”, were it not for the details of how Mr Granda ended up in Cúcuta. These have emerged in fits and starts. He was snatched from a café in the centre of Caracas and smuggled over the border by, it is alleged, the anti-kidnap squad of Venezuela's National Guard. It was a freelance operation, carrying a hefty reward—and perhaps with Colombian agents present.

These revelations have brought relations between the two countries to their lowest point since 1987 (when a Colombian warship entered disputed waters, almost sparking a war). Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's left-wing president, accused Colombia of violating his country's sovereignty. On January 14th, he suspended trade agreements with Colombia and withdrew his ambassador from Bogotá pending an apology. Álvaro Uribe, his right-wing counterpart in Colombia, denies that any violation took place. He has repeated claims that Mr Chávez harbours terrorists and turns a blind eye to guerrilla camps on Venezuelan soil.

This issue has long caused tensions. Mr Chávez claims to be “neutral” in the conflict between Colombia's democratic state and the rebels, who rely on kidnapping and drugs. Venezuela's ruling coalition includes some close friends of the FARC. Although both the FARC and right-wing paramilitaries have spilled across the 2,200km (1,370-mile) border between the two countries, Mr Chávez refused to co-ordinate army operations with Colombia. Venezuela is suspicious of American aid to its neighbour, which includes helicopters and military advisers.

Recently, however, relations had become warmer. Mr Chávez's victory in a recall referendum in August, and Mr Uribe's success in obtaining a constitutional change to allow his re-election, mean that both men expect to have to do business with each other for a while. In November, they met and talked of exchanging intelligence on the border region.

The Granda incident has put paid to this thaw. It appears that Mr Granda and his family had been living openly in Venezuela. He had been given nationality and even voted in the referendum. Awkwardly for Mr Chávez, the FARC put him on the spot by stating that Venezuela's government had invited Mr Granda to two conferences, something officials had previously denied. The president must now choose either to quarrel with Colombia, or to repudiate the FARC and dent his “revolutionary” credentials.

Even though Colombia's exports to Venezuela are substantial and growing, officials in Bogotá were slow to mend relations. Francisco Santos, the vice-president, called on “bounty-hunters of the world” to help capture terrorists. Colombia says at least seven more guerrilla leaders are in Venezuela, and it wants them extradited.

The United States, which has criticised Mr Chávez's recent curbs on the media and opponents, has given firm backing to Colombia in the argument—and may have helped find Mr Granda. A group of American senators recently called for better relations with Venezuela, which is an important oil supplier. But at her confirmation hearing this week, Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of state, said that Venezuela's government was “a negative force in the region”. She promised to “work with others to expose that and to say to President Chávez this kind of behaviour is really not acceptable in the hemisphere.”

What now? Mr Uribe has not accepted Mr Chávez's invitation to a bilateral meeting, saying the two should meet in the presence of other Latin American leaders. Brazil's president, Lula da Silva, has offered to mediate. Colombia has promised hard evidence that Venezuela is protecting the guerrillas—something which has been elusive. If there is substance to the claim, even Mr Chávez's friends in the region will press him to crack down. A Latin America composed of democracies no longer thinks it acceptable for one country to harbour another's “terrorists”.

Financial Times

Lula acts to broker end to stand-off over Farc 'arrest'
By Andy Webb-Vidal in Bogotá
Published: January 20 2005 00:50 | Last updated: January 20 2005 00:50

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, travelled to the Colombian border on Wednesday to meet the leader of Brazil's neighbour in an effort to broker a resolution to a tense diplomatic stand-off between Colombia and Venezuela.

Since last week the two Andean neighbours have been locked in a bitter dispute triggered by the covert capture in December of a top Colombian insurgent in the Venezuelan capital Caracas. Colombia insists that Venezuela is harbouring “terrorists” wanted by the Colombian authorities, while Venezuela has withdrawn its ambassador to Bogotá in protest and unilaterally suspended trade links.

The impasse was expected to dominate the previously scheduled bilateral meeting between the Brazilian leader and President Alvaro Uribe in Leticia, a Colombian jungle town bordering Brazil.

Brazil maintains relatively cordial relations with both Bogotá and Caracas, and a peace initiative from there is likely to be considered by Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president. Caracas has already signalled that it is willing to extend an olive branch.

“We want to overcome this situation, so it ends up as an incident in the past,” Ali Rodriguez, Venezuela's foreign minister, said on Tuesday.

Colombia's government says that Rodrigo Granda, the guerrilla representative, was captured by Venezuelan soldiers and handed over to Colombia after the offer of a reward. Venezuela claims that Colombia, assisted by the US Central Intelligence Agency, bribed Venezuelan national guards into undertaking an “illegal” kidnapping that violated its sovereignty.

Colombia is accumulating information supporting its claim that the Chávez government is supporting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), a group classified as “terrorist” by the US and Europe.

Interpol circulated documentation last September including to Venezuela's Interpol representative that detailed Mr Granda's Farc history. Venezuela, Bogotá adds, ignored the Interpol request for Mr Granda's arrest, despite his attendance at a government-organised seminar.

According to Mr Granda's diary, excerpts of which were seen by the FT, the top Farc representative kept the telephone numbers of several people in the Chávez government and other Farc members in Venezuela. It also has the numbers of Evo Morales, the Bolivian coca farmers leader and an international ally of Mr Chávez.

Even if a settlement to the diplomatic dispute is brokered by the Brazilian president, the thorny issue of Venezuela's alleged support for the Farc will remain. Colombia, Washington's staunchest regional ally in the war on terrorism, said it would present Caracas with details of the location of seven top Farc commanders and several guerrilla camps in Venezuela.

Colombia possesses photographs of Farc settlements in Venezuela taken by US satellites. To be classed by Colombia, and by extension the US, as a supporter of terrorists could give Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, “rogue-state” status. Condoleeza Rice, the incoming US secretary of state, described Mr Chávez as a “negative force” in the region.

A US consultant in Bogotá said: “I hope someone in Caracas is thinking this through. I don't think Chávez wants his country declared a terrorist haven.” The Granda incident has caused ructions within the government of Mr Chávez, self-styled champion of the region's wave of radical populism. His position in recent days has been influenced by the competing pull of a range of disparate leftwing and military factions.

While all the factions are loyal to the president, the radicals favour a faster pace of social reform and a more confrontational stance with the US. After the capture of Mr Granda a radical group of Marxist intellectuals who have sought international solidarity for Mr Chávez, as well as for the Farc, pressured Mr Chávez to take an aggressive stance with Mr Uribe.

“This internal struggle is having a big impact on the [structure of] power,” says Alfredo Keller, a Caracas-based political analyst. “Chávez acted to suit the requirement of the left.”

Differences between them and more conservative, mainly military, factions,analysts say, help explain why Mr Chávez took so long to respond to Mr Granda's capture.