|Reading the resolution of the Colombian conflict |
|Franklin W Knight |
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Earlier this month the Colombian military conducted a secret unilateral military operation across its frontier with Ecuador. It attacked a camp of the decades-old Colombian guerrilla organisation, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia that goes by its Spanish acronym, FARC. The attack killed about 16 fighters including Luis Edgar Devia,
whose nom de guerre was Raúl Reyes, the important international FARC spokesman, and second in command of the terrorist organisation, and yielded a considerable amount of internal information from captured computers. The attack set off a small but intense verbal firestorm across northern South America and briefly threatened to break out into open international war.
Hugo Chávez used his regular presidential television broadcast to condemn the frontier invasion of a neighbouring state, to break diplomatic relations with Colombia, and to rush thousands of Venezuelan troops to his frontier with Colombia. Rafael Correa, the left-leaning present of Ecuador, responded by breaking diplomatic relations as well as preparing his army for possible retaliatory action. Daniel Ortega, former leftist firebrand and currently president of Nicaragua, recalled his ambassador from Bogotá in solidarity. Other Latin American heads of state deplored the act, but few were willing to speak openly or suggest the sort of drastic action taken by Nicaragua, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Despite the urgent gravity of the situation and the sensationalised international press reports, matters were never as close to war as they appeared. Chávez might have a lot of money and a mouth that attracts attention, but the regular Colombian army is larger and better supplied than the combined forces of Venezuela and Ecuador. And economically both countries need their big neighbour. The Venezuelan troop movement was more a dramatic military parade than serious preparation for war. By March 8 the crisis was over, amicably resolved at a regular meeting of the Rio Group Heads of State of Latin America and the Caribbean held in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
The crisis and its resolution provide an interesting and informative window into the changing relations in the Americas over the past decades. Latin America and the Caribbean are producing some remarkably mature, responsible and competent political leaders. Little by little the region is turning to Brazil to shoulder the leadership and resolution of regional crises. As it did in Haiti after the overthrow of Aristide, Brazil again assumed the mantle in Santo Domingo.
Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, currently in his final term of office, remains among the most respected heads of state in the Western Hemisphere. Continuing the good policies of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula has overseen the gradual rise of Brazil as one of the leading economic countries in the world. His domestic social policies have reduced poverty by nearly one-half, and his independent foreign policy has won enormous international respect for Brazil as it comfortably moves into super-power status.
The big loser in Latin America has been the USA. It has been steadily losing influence and respect across the region since 1971 when it devalued its dollar. In the past decades it has not demonstrated mutual respect for its neighbours. It engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, in 1973. It intervened in several member states, including El Salvador, Nicaragua,
Panama, and Grenada. Between 2000 and 2005 under its Plan Colombia, the United States poured almost US5 billion in aid to Colombia, largely to eradicate narcotics trafficking, and it aggressively tried to use the Organisation of American States as an extension of US foreign policy. Indeed, the Rio Group was formed in 1986 precisely to counter this heavy-handed US approach to hemispheric affairs.
President Álvaro Uribe used some the US aid to bolster his national military, and the attack of March 1 was a manifest demonstration of this. But if the military situation improved against the FARC and its smaller rival, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), national sovereignty remains almost as elusive as ever. Colombia is not a sovereign state.
Large swaths of the country remain outside the effective control of the central government, especially along the frontiers with Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Brazil. Still, the national economy has been growing impressively. Colombia is a major consumer commodity supplier for Ecuador and Venezuela. Nevertheless, unemployment remains high and Colombia supplies the lion's share of cocaine and heroin sold on the streets in the United States.
FARC and the ELN were big losers after Santo Domingo. Neither group is as strong as it used to be militarily. Present estimates claim a military strength of less than 5,000 fighters in the ELN and less than 11,000 in FARC. That is less than half of what they were about 10 years ago. Then they were militant Marxist ideologues seeking to capture the central political apparatus of the Colombian state. Along the way, they diversified into extortion, kidnapping, and narco-trafficking. Neither guerrilla group has the ability to operate within Colombia with their previous impunity. Moreover, both FARC and the ELN failed to have their status upgraded from terrorist groups to legitimate insurgents in Santo Domingo.
Last week was an especially bad one for FARC. It lost two very important senior figures. The Colombian army killed Luis Devia. Manuel Jesús Muñoz, also known as Iván Ríos, was killed in an internal dispute. His supporters presented an amputated hand and his computer to the army, probably hoping to receive the US$5 million ransom for Muñoz.
The border incident did not provide Hugo Chávez with his finest hour. His attempt to use the incident as a major anti-American slogan fest largely fell on deaf ears. While it is well known that the USA has been providing military aid to Colombia, there was no evidence that this time the cross-border incursion was a proxy United States intervention.
Moreover, Chávez unsuccessfully attempted to enlist Lula against Colombia. He did, however, get Uribe to drop the threat of filing a complaint with the International Criminal Court that Chávez is a financial supporter of FARC.
The Santo Domingo meeting shows that Latin America and the Caribbean no longer depend on the United States to resolve regional problems. This represents a major step forward in intra-regional cooperation and indicates a commendable maturation of the Organisation of American States.