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| 7/29/2010 12:00:00 AM

Was it necessary?

Many believe that the collapse of relations between Colombia and Venezuela could have been avoided. Hope remains that this diplomatic war will be brief.

Relations between Colombia and Venezuela during the stormy eight-year coexistence of Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez have had all sorts of ups and downs. They have gone through rhetoric of unity and brotherhood and then descended into conflicts that have dangerously neared military confrontation. Even so, it still surprised that a coup de grace was produced in Uribe’s last minute at the Presidential Palace. The two countries passed, in one week, from a hopeful moment to cutting their diplomatic ties.

This week’s was the most dramatic chapter of the scuffle, because of its manner rather than its meaning. Some of the past crisis were graver in significance, like the one involving Rodrigo Granda’s capture in Caracas, or when a guerrilla settlement in Ecuador’s border was bombed by Colombian troops. Or when Venezuela reacted angrily to Colombia’s signature of a military cooperation agreement with the United States. Each of these episodes had a dose of Chavez-like tropicalism, but none reached last Thursday’s boxing show at the OAS (Organization for the American States). The interventions—of ambassadors Luís Alfonso Hoyos, from Colombia, and Roy Chaderton, from Venezuela—clashed in every issue, but matched up in their poor level. The audience was skeptical, embarrassed and surprised.

President Uribe had been careful to maintain a moderate language so far, which contrasted with Chavez's verbal excesses. At the OAS, though, this was reversed. It was Colombia that overflowed in aggressiveness rather than Venezuela, which responded with restraint. In formal matters, Hoyos was coarse and somewhat demagogic, while Chaderton used irony and flamboyance. Common stereotypes, this time, were exchanged.

Hoyos presentation included serious and truthful allegations. For some time now, president Uribe’s Government has shown evidence of the existence of guerrilla camps in Venezuelan territory, which serve as permanent settlement for guerrilla leaders like “Ivan Marquez”, "Tymochenko” 'Grannobles”, Granda and “Pablito”. It was also known that from this spots both the FARC and the ELN carried out operations freely. As a senator and as a presidential candidate, Germán Vargas Lleras made the same accusations, which have also been spread over the years by Venezuelan media.

While the statement made by Colombia’s representative was full of truths, Chaderton’s characterized by its irrelevance. It seemed that the text he read was written in advance, and therefore, it did not respond Hoyos’ allegations. Excess of comical, mocking references—to singer Miguel Bosé, to model Larissa Riquelme, or to the famous World Cup octopus Paul—introduced a banal tone that angered Colombians.

However, despite the truthful arguments contained in the Colombian allegation, it cannot be said that the ambassador Hoyos won before his audience. Although the presented evidences were valid, the political environment and the way they were displayed led to raising questions. Some of the videos and pictures on display, for instance, are not conclusive evidence of the presence of “Marquez” and the other guerrilla members in Venezuela. They could have been recorded elsewhere with similar climatic and geographical conditions. Too many of this kind of images weakened Hoyos’ exposition, which could have been more effective if he limited only to those that did prove something. The only concrete, non-debatable evidence were the coordinates of the place where Ivan Márquez’ residence is built. But even this was minimized by Chaderton, who stated that coordinates showed before by Uribe´s government have been proved untrue.
In politics, truth is not always consistent with what is believable. Several elements made this episode a good example of it. The poor presentation of the Ambassador Luis Alfonso Hoyos, for instance: Its ease of expression was so that some viewers might have thought to be witnessing a knockout. But when analyzed, the big picture shows that the same ease of expression led to counterproductive language excesses. Some parts of Hoyos’ intervention were even unimportant for an international audience as well as irrelevant for the bottom line in question. An attempt of doing a positive balance of Uribe’s social politics, for example. Or, even worse, the aggressive tone used against Chávez and against the Venezuelan Government. The use of unsophisticated lexicon, like "little angels" or "bloodsuckers" when referring to the rebels, which was probably trouble for the interpreters. This forces us to think that, had the complaint been made with a measured speech, without aggression, maybe it wouldn’t have necessarily led to the severance of relations.

In these circumstances, it was naïve to believe that the proposal to create an OAS commission to verify guerrilla-presence in the revealed coordinates was actually going to be heard. Chavez, for starters, would never accept a leading role by the OAS: he considers this organization is manipulated by the United States, and therefore he despises it.

The nature of the OAS, on the other hand, by tradition and by its own rules, is to seek consensus. But this is impossible on an issue that so deeply divides the whole continent. On the other hand, Venezuela was already granted with predictable supporting positions, such as those of it’s Alba allies. Others, like Brazil, preferred to stay out of the controversy. And Colombia could only count on the U.S., Canada, Chile, Peru and Mexico. The OAS wasn’t the most favorable terrain for the allegations. Nor was the moment that President Uribe chose to make this information public. He had known about it for several months. And the reasons why the evidence was being kept in reserve—the sensitivity of the content, the need for caution in order to avoid provocations—remained valid.

It was also inconvenient to bring the scandalous information to light in the precise moment when there’s a transition going on between an outgoing and a new Colombian government. President-elect Juan Manuel Santos’ intention to improve relations with Caracas, which have been well received there, make Uribe’s decision even less understandable. Especially 15 days before he’s leaving the presidential palace.

The Economist, a conservative magazine that has praised Uribe’s administration and criticized Chavez, says in its latest issue that the outgoing president is "trying to obstruct his successor when seeking a reconciliation with the Venezuelan government." The publication highlights the designation of Maria Angela Holguín as Foreign Affairs Minister as a symptom of Santos’ intentions to heal bi national relations. Holguín has been ambassador in Caracas and is known for her pragmatic and professional work.

There is a significant element that hasn’t been mentioned. Very few people in Colombia had extended knowledge of the presence of Colombian guerrillas in Venezuelan territory. President Uribe had it. But also does Juan Manuel Santos who as Defense Minister was responsible for the most of the intelligence work that produced the evidence. It is striking that, with exactly the same information, Uribe and Santos reached completely opposed strategies.

In the end, optimists and pessimists were divided on their reviews about the last round of the Uribe-Chávez era. The optimists considered fitting that Uribe, with nothing to lose in his last days, argued with a cynical government that disrespects him and favors the FARC. The pessimists believe that bi national crisis deepened unnecessarily, with disastrous consequences both for trade and for the border population’s everyday life.

The rupture of diplomatic relations is very bad for two countries as interdependent as Colombia and Venezuela. Chavez's announcement was breaking news for the BBC and other international media, and concerned governments as diverse as those of the United States and France. Just like the General Secretary for the UN, Ban Ki Moon did, both Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy called for dialogue.

In Colombia and Venezuela, the impasse is understood differently and is considered less serious. Unorthodox diplomacy is common in these tropical lands, where relationships are broken, suspended and frozen with the same ease with which they are later restored. The most drastic measures taken by Chavez— ambassador’s recalling, border closures, military movements—, have not lasted long. Only the trade blocking has extended and has already cost over 4,000 million dollars.

In the current crisis there is a chance that Chavez wants to make it clear that his quarrel was with Uribe's Colombia and that he’s willing to get along with the Colombia of Santos. He opened this window during his speech next to argentine former football player Diego Maradona, when he also announced the severance of relations. He showed that his anger is not against the new president.

It remains unknown whether the sole change of government next August 7 is sufficient to normalize the situation. Opinions are divided on two issues. The first one is whether it’s worth trying a change of policy towards a hostile neighbor whom there are many fundamental differences with. The second one is if last week’s events makes it harder or otherwise facilitates the new government’s intentions of healing relations with Venezuela.

As to what to do with Chavez, Uribe’s confrontation-style enhances dignity among Colombians, but it’s better received inside his country than in the international community. And if one takes a look at the results, this strategy hasn’t delivered a good cost-benefit balance. At the other end is the U.S. pragmatic policy not to confront Chavez in public in order to ensure they’re going to continue importing oil from Venezuela.

Juan Manuel Santos is apparently aiming to professionalize bilateral management and to create spaces for prudent and direct dialogue. Something like that was accomplished when Spain and France cooperated to overcome issues involving the presence of ETA members across the French border. This scheme offers an interesting model for Colombia and Venezuela, although it should be noted that France and Spain had center-left governments, and their bilateral agenda was not as complex as the Colombia-Venezuela one.

However, even with such panorama, one can speculate that if relations between both countries have reached a bottom, that may have some advantages. The fact that the situation can’t get any worse opens a glimpse of hope for the new government. Hope for both the president-elect and for María Angela Holguín: the recent scuffle increases chances for Santos to promote an effective diplomacy. His cautious statements from Mexico kept him out of fight and left him positioned as the man to resolve the conflict. A complete paradox, given that Santos has always been one of Colombia’s most anti-Chavez politicians as well as the one who inherited the greater political benefit from the confrontation.

Extremes sometimes work. As has happened over and over again, relations between the U.S. and China could only be normalized when Richard Nixon, the most anti-communist of his generation, opened the way for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries after three decades of 'cold war' with the government of Mao Zedong.

The truth is that with such a dark picture—with a commercial blockade, broken diplomacy and international tension—, any advance made by Santos will be widely noticed. It is impossible to take the success of such a complex mission for granted, but it’s clear that Santos intends to achieve it. He also has the ability and the talent to start his period with a new stage in Colombia-Venezuela relations.

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