July 08, 2009
Thoughts on Colombia and Ecuador's Arrest Warrant Dispute
The big news in Colombia this past week has been a heated dispute with Ecuador. An Ecuadorean judge ordered the capture of former Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. As Defense Minister, Santos ordered the 2008 bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuadorean territory that killed a top guerrilla commander and led to the discovery of some laptop computers that seem to have contained very useful intelligence about guerrilla contacts and activities.
At the time, the bombing was seen as a huge success. The FARC, who have been at war with the Colombian government for decades, were seemingly untouchable in the 1990's. Colombians saw guerrillas, previously confined to the countryside, establish a strong presence in large cities, not simply with large-scale bombings but with permanent militias in poor neighborhoods.
In the summer of 2008, after six years of gradual success in the fight against guerrillas, the Colombian military dealt a series of serious blows to the FARC. They killed the top two commanders and rescued several of their most prized political hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American military contractors. In Colombia, people were ecstatic. It seemed that President Uribe had, in the course of six years, come very close to ending a long national nightmare: FARC have, in the past three decades, become increasingly brutal and involved in the drug trade.
Ecuador, of course, protested that the bombing was a violation of their sovereignty. Colombia, meanwhile, did little to apologize for the episode and instead launched continuous accusations of sympathy for and even collaboration with the FARC not just at Ecuador, but also at Venezuela. The whole thing became a massive regional political crisis that resulted in some significant troop movements on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border.
The episode was a great example of Latin American political theater. Uribe, Chavez and Correa all benefited from spikes in nationalist sentiment. Name-calling and ridiculous accusations became the norm. On the Colombian side, local music stars held peace concerts in large cities and on the border with Venezuela.
Of course, the war between Colombia and Venezuela was never going to happen. The two countries are very interdependent in terms of trade and their aggressive presidents' insults and accusations were clearly baseless. There is no clear evidence that either Chavez or Correa is directly supporting the FARC. Otherwise, Uribe would never shake their hand has he often does (especially with Chavez during frequent conciliatory meetings). Nevertheless, there are people in Colombia who genuinely believe their government's accusations against Venezuela, which gives Uribe a significant nationalist/ideological political boost.
It is true, however, that both Ecuador and Venezuela are at least tolerant of FARC elements along their borders with Colombia. They have no political incentive to fight the FARC, which are still a powerful guerrilla group and, in the case of Ecuador, they probably don't have the military capacity to do so either. Given all the damage the FARC have done in Colombia, it would be unwise for Chavez or Correa to unleash such war and devastation on their own people when, for now, the guerrillas seem not to pose any significant threat to their security.
Moving along, while Colombia and Venezuela seem to go through cycles of insult and hand-shaking, relations with Ecuador have steadily deteriorated. The recent arrest warrant is a significant symbolic gesture, and has caused plenty of outrage in Colombia. President Uribe ordered the creation a special security team to protect former Minister Santos while several Colombian lawyers and politicians have been preparing not only Santos's legal defense, but an arrest warrant of their own against Ecuadorean officials for supposed collaboration with FARC guerrillas.
While there are very real sovereignty and security issues at the heart of the dispute, Ecuador and Colombia are clearly engaging in political theater on a large and possibly dangerous scale for domestic political benefit. Ecuador's President is currently dealing with a corruption scandal surrounding his family and Uribe, while still enjoying stable and high levels of popularity, could benefit from another spike in nationalist sentiment and a reminder of the good old days of the 2008 bombing, when Colombians believed they were close to the end of the world's longest running conflict.
This public dispute comes at an interesting time, as several governments throughout the region are engaged in a similarly strange combination of political theater and serious, urgent debate with regard to the political crisis in Honduras. Central America, like Northwest corner of South America, is going through a series of tense political processes and power struggles eerily reminiscent of the Cold War.
Nothing would be better for Latin America than to let go of Cold War-era rhetoric and ideology and their destructive by-products: violence, polarization and political stagnation. Unfortunately, as the challenges and debates of the Cold War drift away into total irrelevance and new, urgent challenges emerge, many regional governments on both the 'left' and the 'right' still resort to outdated rhetoric and ideology. Political incentives continue to create divisive leaders who generally miss the point.
Fortunately, there are a few presidents in Latin America, most notably Lula da Silva of Brazil, ready to lead the region into the 21st century. It is crucial, from a U.S. standpoint, that President Obama is also forward-looking and in tune with the region's new challenges and realities. The Honduras crisis is his first real opportunity to stand strongly for sustainable democracy and institution-building in the region.
So far, I think Obama has at least taken the right stance on the issue. In his first term, Obama should continue to do away with the inaction and polarizing Axis-of-Evil style rhetoric of the Bush era and collaborate with Latin American governments to tackle the hemisphere's most pressing issues: trade, inequality, the environment and the rule of law, among others.
Posted by Pablo Rojas at July 8, 2009 12:46 PM