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| 12/16/2008 12:00:00 AM

Diplomacy: Back to the drawing board

As Colombia’s current relations with the United States, Venezuela and Ecuador demonstrate, President Uribe’s famed presidential diplomacy no longer can be expected to bear fruit.

For six years, the best foreign friend of President Álvaro Uribe has been his colleague President George. W. Bush. The sentiment was mutual. “My good friend,” said Bush time and time again referring to Uribe.
 
That friendship was the pillar on which the relationship was built between the two countries. It worked until Bush’s party lost its majority in the U.S. Congress in November 2006. Then it became clear that foreign policy had two pillars and that Democrats and Republicans had diverging opinions on Colombia. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” This is how the presumed bipartisan consensus proclaimed by the Colombian government started to crumble. It is also the beginning of the demystification of the supposed advantages for Colombia in having the White House tenant believe that Uribe was such a good pal.

Two facts this year showed the crass error of placing all of the Colombian government’s bets on Bush. Against the obvious long-term interests of Colombia, the U.S. president tried to stuff the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) down Congress’ throats. Obviously, the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was not going to be intimidated by the most unpopular president in U.S. history. The second fact happened live and direct on television before more than 60 million Americans during the third presidential debate. When candidate Barack Obama was asked what he thought about the FTA, he said that in Colombia “labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis.” It isn’t a good signal that the top of mind of the future president of the United States is something so terrifying.

The United States is not the only country where the Colombian government has gambled all of its national interests on presidential chemistry. With Venezuela, curiously, the same thing is happening. For a long time, people had talked about how well Hugo Chávez and Uribe got along. They might have had diametrically opposed opinions, but the two leaders did share something which guaranteed harmony between the two countries. When relations between the neighbors fell into crisis, first in November 2007 and later in January and March of 2008, this personal bond was useless. There was even a risk of an armed skirmish at the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

When the emotional and personal link between the two presidents broke, it showed just how truly fragile the relations between the two neighboring countries were. That is why neither the public reconciliation at the Group of Rio meeting in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in Marcha nor the statements of the presidents that they had “turned the page” , have any real credibility.

With Ecuador, the personal animosity between Rafael Correa and Uribe has the two countries immersed in their worst diplomatic crisis in history. Correa has not forgiven Uribe for having ordered the attack on the FARC guerrilla camp of leader “Raúl Reyes” without first consulting him and for having lied about details of the operation during the following days. Uribe continues to believe that Colombia had the right to attack and that Correa can’t be serious. Both leaders exhibit a high sensibility about what the other says. That is why Uribe boycotted the recent meeting of the Andean Community and why the Ecuadorian government cites the statements of Colombian officials in order to justify the freezing of relations.

The examples of Bush, Chávez ,and Correa illustrate the inherent traps of delegating all the responsibility of international relations to presidents. Embassies and ministries of foreign affairs exist in order to serve as buffers and avoid that things spin out of control. Because when the matter arrives at the presidential level, there is no turning back.

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