By Thiago de Aragao.
Latin America came to a halt during recent weeks, to witness the crisis between Colombia and Ecuador, featuring an over-the-top intromission by Hugo Chávez's Venezuela.
Conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government have been going on for over 30 years. However, for the first time has now a government managed to inflict severe losses on the "narcoguerillas." Backed by US war equipment, Álvaro Uribe's government has obtained expressive results against the FARC – which have been historically strong thanks to drug trafficking and donations by foreign intellectuals who haven't really thought the whole situation over.
Faced with the military attacks, the FARC are having to retreat and give up territories they have been controlling for years. The areas near Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador – very porous due to a lack of border controls – are mostly made up of rain forest, which makes it impossible to determine on which side of the border you are.
After presidential elections in Venezuela and Ecuador, we have seen an interesting depiction of Northern South America geopolitics. Historical partners Venezuela and Colombia are now in very contradictory terms. There is a huge gap between Uribe's pro-US stance and Chávez's "socialist" government. And having a neighbour showing opposite ideology, along with high social development figures, economic growth, political stability and massive people support, is the worst that could have happened to Chávez. For Venezuelans currently experiencing food shortage, an increase in violence and a lack of correlation between government expenditures and the return expected by the population, Colombia does not look that bad.
Ecuador, led by Rafael Correa, is but an extension of Venezuela. Correa's foreign policy boils down to following whatever Chávez wishes. They do not hide their dream of having one South American nation. Nevertheless, Colombia impairs any manifestation of such will, however distant it might seem to be.
Colombian incursions against the FARC occur almost on a daily basis. Also daily, the FARC hide on the other side of the border, where they used to think they were "safe" from any military attack. Border violation occurs almost every day, and that was never seen as a problem. The raid by the Colombian military against the FARC's refuge on Ecuadorean soil was a mix of luck and competence.
On the day of the action, Colombian government intelligence had received information that a number of FARC guerrillas were just 2 km away from the border, on the Ecuadorean side. Up until then, they did not know that Raúl Reyes was among them. They thought he was Ivan Rios, the FARC number 3, who ended up killed a few days later by the guerrillas themselves. Aware that the FARC's lair was located on foreign land, the military also knew they were not allowed to do their "search" outside their territory. The attack needed be clinical, direct and quick.
A few hours before the action, the US intelligence service, who helps the Colombian government locate the FARC when they are in remote rain forest areas (thanks to satellite monitoring), sent some info regarding the exact location of the guerrillas, besides the presence of Raúl Reyes rather than Ivan Rios, who was the initial target of the Colombian Army. Pinpointing the exact location became even easier during the military air strike, as Raúl Reyes used an easily traceable phone to communicate. Via satellite, the US managed to trace his exact location and, more (or less) surprisingly, with whom Reyes talked. According to information later disclosed, Reyes was speaking to Hugo Chávez at the exact moment the strike occurred. That made things a lot easier for the military, as, without satellite phone, it would have been quite hard to locate the FARC in that part of the rain forest.
The strike on Ecuadorean soil was very quick, killing at least 30 guerrillas and providing secret information stored on three of Reyes' laptops found in the camp. Soon after the military returned to Colombia, Quito became aware of the incursion, and Correa tried to get more information about the event. Venezuela's strong participation in the case owes to the close ties between Reyes and Chávez. Besides the phone conversation at the exact moment of Reyes' death, Chávez had agreed to "loan" him US$ 300 million.
Chávez knew how to bypass the problem, and he proved very clever. Since his country was experiencing severe shortage (food, fuel, basic supplies), and Colombia was going through a much better time, Chávez used this opportunity to criticize his opponent, Uribe, and to create a climate of national commotion as a smokescreen to the shortage problem. Although he was not formally affected by the Colombian raid, Chávez made it clear that he repudiated the event and sent troops to the border. As he knows that camps similar to those in Ecuador exist in Venezuela, he would love to see Uribe conducting similar operations. The Venezuelan president needs as many conflicts as possible to divert attention from the severe domestic problems the country is undergoing.
Given how violent the attack against the FARC was in the original search for Ivan Rios, the guerrillas became afraid of similar strikes. Rios was killed three days later by FARC members, as they feared new Colombian attempts to search for him.
The border problem was solved in a relatively easy fashion. In a certain way, everybody got what they wanted. Chávez made Colombia apologize and, but for a moment, diverted the focus from his domestic problems. Rafael Correa won, as his act of power against Uribe made his approval rates rise. Meanwhile, Álvaro Uribe consolidated his domestic power even further by reaching an incredible 84% approval rate. Conversely, 90% of Colombians have a negative opinion on Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. According to Gallup manager Jorge Londoño, "Uribe's image owes to the last diplomatic effects." However, he recalls that the diplomatic solution reached during the Rio Group summit has not yet made an impact with the public opinion.
Another interesting figure is that 82% of Colombians approve of the policies adopted by the government to tackle the FARC. Compared to the previous poll, approval for the security policy increased by 15 percentage points.
The Organization of American States (OAS) acted swiftly and effectively, but failed to solve the problem.
We should pay attention to what may unfold from now on. The antagonism between the so-called "Chavist" countries (Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia) and Colombia continues on a high. The FARC are still admired by the former and fought by the latter. They remain hiding in camps in neighbouring countries, as the Colombian military continues hunting them. If necessary, Uribe will gladly authorize fresh attacks similar to the ones he ordered in Ecuador. And the region's security may be at stake because Uribe is certain that he did the right thing, in spite of his apologies to his neighbours. Uribe will not hesitate to attack. If domestic issues persist, Chávez will certainly try to find enough evidence to start a new crisis with Colombia.
If, by miracle, the domestic situation improves in Venezuela, we can be sure that Chávez will not mind any Colombian incursions, as he knows this is part of the game and has been done on a daily basis for years.
The food shortage has aggravated in the first quarter of 2007, according to 77% of Venezuelans. It the third worst problem for the population, below violence and cost of living. The figures were released by consultancy firm Alfredo Keller y Asociados after a poll conducted between February 8 and February 22. According to the poll, the rise in insecurity is a matter of concern to 31% of Venezuelans. The percentage of people worried with the food shortage increased from 6% to 13%.
As regards corruption, only 7% believe it will decrease. Concerning Chávez's defeat in his project to reform the constitution, 65% believe that the government should not implement a socialist economy, whereas 31% understand that the executive should install a socialist regime. Regarding the possibility of re-election for indefinite terms, 60% are against it, with 31% in favour.
Survey results point out that the domestic scenario is currently negative for Chávez. The food shortage, directly affecting his support base, is increasingly worrying Venezuelans. Besides, controversial issues such as implementing a socialist regime and unlimited re-elections are still refused by the population. Although he controls the means of communication and the political system, Chávez is facing public opinion resistance in his willingness to make deep changes in the nation.
Thiago de Aragao is the FPC's Latin America Associate based in Brazil.