Trouble South of the Border


The recent death at the hands of the Colombian military of Luis Edgar Devia Silva ─ better known as Raúl Reyes, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC) second in command ─ has had a ripple effect throughout Latin America.

The attack ─ which was carried out several kilometres inside Ecuador’s territory and killed more than 20 other guerrillas ─ may halt further releases of FARC hostages. On 27 February, FARC guerrillas had released four Colombian politicians to Venezuelan mediators after freeing other hostages in January.

The ultra-right wing Government of President Álvaro Uribe publicly blamed the FARC for the delayed release of the first set of hostages. However, Justin Delacour, editor of the Latin America News Review, recently noted how an agreed exchange in December failed because of the Colombian Military’s continual bombing of areas where the FARC were to free the hostages:

"Never did the [US] press ask whether the Uribe Government might have tried to sabotage the hostage release. The omission was ironic given that even the New York Times recognized, after the initial release effort failed, that Uribe had little interest in a hostage release presided over by an international delegation organized by [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez. As the Times reported, ‘a successful mission would have been likely to have embarrassed Mr Uribe, a conservative who has made little progress in negotiating the release of any of the several hundred hostages held in jungle camps, some for nearly a decade.’"

Whatever one may think about the guerrilla’s activities (which include human rights violations and partial involvement in the cocaine trade), the calculated death of Reyes – considered a moderate within the FARC and France’s key contact in the negotiations to free former presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt – will not be helpful in establishing peace in Colombia.

Now that the FARC is classified as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department, leaders like Reyes – who once travelled widely on diplomatic visas – are viewed as legitimate targets by the Colombian Government.

More importantly, Uribe’s move demonstrates that his Government may eventually be looking to enter into a conflict with its neighbours at the request of the United States. There are already close links: Bogota receives roughly US$600 million a year from Washington for its counter-insurgency strategy known as Plan Colombia, and sophisticated US intelligence equipment was used to track Reyes down in Ecuador.

Everyone knew that sensitive hostage negotiations were taking place which involved the Colombian government, the FARC, Venezuela, France and Ecuador. During the operation against the guerrillas, Uribe also telephoned Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa who later stated that "the [Colombian] President either was poorly informed or brazenly lied to the President of Ecuador" about the incident.

Correa described the operation as "scandalous actions that are an aggression on our territory". And his view, although generally unreported, has been echoed in strong diplomatic language by the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Bolivia.

Once it was evident Ecuador and Venezuela would react strongly to the incursion (both expelled Bogota’s ambassadors) the Colombian General Oscar Naranjo declared that Chávez had given the FARC US$300 million. The guerrilla’s aims, he told the world, were to buy uranium from another party for a "dirty bomb".

However, according to a report in The Guardian, Naranjo "provided no proof of the payment and journalists were not given copies of the documents" which purported to reveal that Venezuela had donated money to the FARC. (Other reports have found numerous flaws in the Colombian government’s story.)

Both Ecuador and Venezuela have strong reasons to be concerned with Uribe’s actions.

In Ecuador, President Correa heads a popular leftist government whose social and economic policies are not welcomed by the Bush Administration. In the coming months, his Government will attempt to close down one of the largest US bases in Latin America, established to replace Washington’s presence in Panama, and crucial to Plan Colombia.

The recent actions against the FARC are also not the first time Ecuador’s sovereignty has been violated. There have been other incursions by the Colombian Military in Ecuadorian territory, and chemical warfare has been used in attempts, according to Bogota, to destroy coca plantations.

Ecuador however, is a side show for Washington’s strategic game in Latin America. The real threat is the Government of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

Leaving aside his overly rhetorical style and the occasional diplomatic blunder, Chávez’s challenge to Washington through regional projects is unprecedented in Latin American history. The Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas (ALBA) for example, has been Chávez and Fidel Castro’s answer to the now derailed US Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). Petrocaribe has established an oil alliance between Venezuela and almost every country in the Caribbean, and the Bank of the South (BancoSur) could eventually see millions of dollars leave US and European banks to be reinvested in countries like Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia while breaking the region’s ties to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

The Bush Administration’s strategic analysts are aware of the significance of these developments and how they pale in comparison to anything the Cuban-Nicaraguan alliance achieved in the 1980s. Back then, many of the Reaganites who are still in the White House today sponsored a proxy war against the Sandinistas from Honduras ─ largely funded by weapons sales to Iran and the cocaine trade ─ which left close to 30,000 Nicaraguans dead, and was condemned by the United Nations.

In April 2002, the Republican controlled White House supported a failed coup against Chávez. Two years later over a hundred Colombian paramilitaries were arrested in Venezuela for trying to organise another overthrow of that country’s government.

Recently, Chávez has accused Washington and Bogota of starting to flood Venezuela’s poor neighbourhoods with cocaine below market prices and sending new Colombian paramilitaries into the country. Some of these claims may be rhetoric from Chávez, but they may also be true.

In the past few years, small incursions by the Colombian military and paramilitaries into Venezuelan territory have taken place. March 9, Colombian drug lord and paramilitary Armando González Polanco – a.k.a. Gordito González and wanted by Interpol – was arrested in Venezuela along with 55 suspected paramilitaries, according to authorities in Caracas.

Polanco – who ran his own drug cartel in Guajira – is believed to have links with the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), while in 2004 his brother Eudo González Polanco, along with seven other individuals, was killed in an armed confrontation with Venezuelan authorities as they attempted his arrest. 

Now that Uribe and his generals have killed a member of the FARC’s ruling secretariat ─ the first in the group’s 44 year history – the Colombian Government may be emboldened to push the guerrillas into Venezuela and Ecuador. In that scenario, the US could claim that the Colombian State’s war against the FARC should include Venezuela and Ecuador.

An eventual regionalisation of the Colombian civil war, or the use of that country as a US launch pad to destabilise Venezuela, is unwelcomed by Chávez or Correa and is the reason why both have now mobilised large numbers of troops on their borders. Uribe, according to Correa at a joint press conference with Chávez, would do the same, except that Ecuador’s border is controlled by the FARC and Colombian armed forces would be "massacred" were they to be sent.

Although cross-border trade between Venezuela and Colombia is valued at over US$6 billion a year, and would suggest it is ludicrous for the two countries to enter into a military conflict, the issue is much larger. The regional projects being developed by Caracas clash directly with the United States, whose corporations have always had preferential treatment in Latin America, while paying scandalously low taxes.

Colombia recently publicly apologised for the Ecuador incursion at a Rio Group summit in Santo Domingo. And historically, Chávez has always accepted Uribe’s olive branch after diplomatic incidents with Bogota. However, in Caracas, Chávez’s Government continues to arm thousands of citizens in Cuban-style people’s militias in the event of war.

Whether the United States, through Colombia, will eventually decide to inflict devastation on Venezuela is unknown, but one thing should be clear: in the Americas, what Washington does to protect its self-appointed "interests" can have devastating consequences.

Just ask the Nicaraguans.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.