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No Place for Washington in Colombia-Venezuela Row

A process of South American diplomacy could resolve the Colombia-Venezuela dispute. The US should keep its distance

In March I wrote about the Obama administration's contribution to the election campaign under way in Venezuela, where voters will choose a new national assembly in September. I predicted that certain things would happen before September, among them some new "discoveries" that Venezuela supports terrorism. Venezuela has had 13 elections or referenda since Hugo Chávez was first elected in 1998, and in the run-up to most of them, Washington has usually done something to influence the political and media climate.

The intentions were already clear on March 11, when General Douglas Fraser, the head of the US Southern Command was testifying to the US Senate. In response to a question from Senator John McCain about Venezuela's alleged support for terrorism, Fraser said:

"We have continued to watch very closely … We have not seen any connections specifically that I can verify that there has been a direct government-to-terrorist connection."

The next day he recanted his testimony after meeting with the US state department's top official for Latin America, Arturo Valenzuela.

This made it clear that the "terrorist" message was going to be a very important part of Washington's campaign. Even the Bush administration had never forced its military officers to retract their statements when they contradicted the state department's political agenda in Latin America, which they sometimes did.

Unfortunately, the campaign continues. Last Thursday, Colombia's ambassador to the Organisation of the American States (OAS) accused Venezuela at an extraordinary meeting of the OAS of harbouring 1,500 guerillas, and asked for the OAS to take action. The timing was noteworthy to many observers. President Lula da Silva of Brazil noted that it "seemed strange that this occurs a few days before [President] Uribe [of Colombia] leaves office. The new president has given signals that he wants to build peace [with Venezuela]. Everything was going well until Uribe made this denunciation."

Venezuela responded by breaking diplomatic relations with Colombia. It had previously cut off much of its trade with Colombia over the past two years, in response to Colombia's agreement with Washington to expand its military presence at seven US military bases in Colombia. Since Venezuela had been Colombia's largest trading partner in the region, it is possible that the new president, Juan Manuel Santos, was looking to improve relations for business reasons if nothing else. He had invited Chávez to his inauguration.

Of course, Uribe does not necessarily take orders from Washington, but it would be naive to assume that someone who has received more than $6bn from the US would not check with his benefactors before doing something like this. The fact that the US state department immediately took Colombia's side in the dispute is further indication that they approved. Even Washington's (rightwing) allies in the region did not take sides, with the government of Chile, for example, issuing a neutral statement; this would have been the normal diplomatic protocol for Washington too, if this were not part of a political and public relations campaign against Venezuela.

Other governments clearly saw Colombia's action as a political move, and were upset with what looked like the OAS being manipulated for these purposes. President Lula was cited in the Brazilian press saying that the venue of the dispute should be moved to Unasur, because the US would tilt the negotiations toward Colombia and against Venezuela. Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, strongly criticised the head of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, for not having consultation before granting Colombia's request for a meeting of the OAS permanent council. Patiño said that Insulza had shown his "absolute incapacity" to direct the organisation and to "look for peace in the region". Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, had even harsher rhetoric for Uribe, calling him "a loyal representative of the US government, with its military bases in Colombia designed to provoke a war between Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua."

This dispute highlights the importance of the institutional changes that the left-of-centre governments in Latin America are trying to make. The increasing importance of Unasur, displacing the OAS, has become vital to Latin American progress and stability. For example, because of the influence of the US (as usual, with a handful of rightwing allies) in the OAS, it failed to take stronger action to restore the democratically elected government of President Zelaya of Honduras last year.

When Bolivia was having problems with attempts by the separatist, extra-parliamentary opposition – including violence and de-stabilisation efforts – it was Unasur that met in Santiago in September 2008 and threw its weight behind the democratic government of Evo Morales. When the US decided last fall to expand its presence at the military bases in Colombia, Unasur reached an agreement – which included Colombia – that prohibited these bases from being used for any actions outside of the country.

As to the substance of Colombia's latest claims, guerillas and paramilitaries have been crossing the 2,000km border with Venezuela – much of it dense jungle, mountains and all kinds of difficult terrain – for decades. There is no evidence that anything has changed recently, and nothing to indicate that the Venezuelan government, which has extradited guerillas to Colombia, supports any armed groups – as General Fraser testified before he was apparently forced to take it back.

On Tuesday Insulza – perhaps feeling like he had gone too far to please Washington – told CNN en Español that "the guerrillas come and go, and it is quite difficult to ask just one country to control the border … Uribe says he doesn't know why Venezuela doesn't detain the guerillas, but the truth is that Colombia can't control them either." He might have added that the US, with all its vastly greater resources and superior technology, doesn't have an easy time controlling the flow of drugs, guns, and people across its own much more manageable border with Mexico.

On Thursday there will be an emergency meeting of Unasur, and hopefully a process of diplomacy will begin to resolve the dispute. Certainly there will be a better chance of success to the extent that Washington – and its political campaigns against governments that it doesn't like – can be kept at a distance.

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