Enemies at Heart

Diplomatic relations between Colombia and Ecuador are plummeting. There is little hope for improvement any time soon.

8 de julio de 2009

On Thursday, February 28 2008, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa called his Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe with good news: Ecuador would no longer request a judicial certificate from Colombians traveling to Ecuador. Uribe was excited and publicly thanked Mr. Correa for the decision. The two presidents spoke again in the first hours of March 1, 2008. This time consular matters were not the issue; they talked about the Colombian attack on a FARC guerrilla camp located in Ecuadorian territory. According to a statement from the Colombian Presidency, Uribe had notified Correa. Apparently, he was lean on the details. “President Uribe was misinformed or blatantly lied to the President of Ecuador—affirmed Rafael Correa hours after ordering his ambassador in Bogotá to withdraw from his post—We are willing to take this to the end. The insults and abuses of the Colombian government must stop” .

Sixteen months later, Correa has kept his promise. The recent warrant of arrest ordered by a judge in Sucumbíos—a remote province in northeast Ecuador— against Colombia’s former minister of defense Juan Manuel Santos, and the request that Interpol issue a Red Notice for his arrest are just the last episodes of a complex judicial, political and diplomatic offensive against Colombia. In april 2008, Ecuador sued Colombia before the International Court of Justice for the aerial spraying of illicit crops near the border. Last month, the neighboring country presented a lawsuit for the death of Ecuadorian citizen Franklin Aisalla before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, body of the Organization of American States. Aisalla died in Colombia’s attack on FARC chief Raul Reyes’ camp.

This week, the Council of Exterior Commerce and Investments of Ecuador decided to impose a tariff on Colombia. The Ecuadorian government alleges the country has excessively devaluated its currency (an odd statement if one considers the strong revaluation of the peso in the past few years.) The measure, according to journalists and local analysts, would only apply to Colombia. And the judicial certificate requirement? It has been reinstated and now, it must carry an Apostille. Even though the worsening of relationships between what some politicians call “sister nations” precedes the bombing of Reyes’s camp- anti-Colombianism in Ecuador increased since the aerial spraying of illicit crops and the not very successful performance of Uribe’s ambassadors in Quito—everything changed decisively in the first days of March 2008. On the one hand, Correa was appalled by the operation that took place on Ecuadorian soil without his consent; on the other, Uribe was shocked by the content of the emails found in Reyes’ computer, which described close ties between high level officials of Ecuador and members of the FARC. Both heads of state, and their followers, felt betrayed down to the soul.

Mistrust, far from disappearing, has matured since then. The rage held in Correa’s heart comes to the fore every time someone mentions Colombia. The fact that the Colombian government has been discreet in public doesn’t mean all doubts regarding the behavior of the Ecuadorian government have been dismissed. This concern was evident in a press statement released by Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs discussing the lawsuit issued for the death of Franklin Aisalla, a man that Ecuador’s own intelligence agencies linked to the FARC. “Colombia will present evidence before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights regarding ties between Ecuadorians and FARC guerrilla, the document states, adding that there is no doubt concerning, “the active presence of the terrorist group on the other side of the Colombian border.”

The verbal cruelty used to describe each other—Ecuatorian officials in public events and their Colombian counterparts in private until this past week (Uribe labeled them as FARC aides)—helps explain why the OAS and the Carter Center’s good deeds have not brought results. Not so long ago, there was a lot of excitement over Correa and Uribe’s handshake at the Río Summit in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), days after the diplomatic crisis had erupted. With that gesture, it was said, the page had been turned. Reality would crush that illusion.

Correa feels Ecuador’s rights have not been vindicated. With his judicial suits and international tours, he is aiming at having Colombia condemned. His sensibility surfaces every time the documents found in Reyes’s computer are discussed. The sheer mention of the laptop produces an explosive reaction from the Ecuadorian leader, as was exemplified in recent days in a column by Mary Anastasia O’Grady published in the Wall Street Journal. The columnist included various excerpts from emails by Gustavo Larrea, Ecuador’s former minister of Security, which leave him with a bad reputation. These messages are not new: they were made public last year and provoked Larrea’s dismissal from the government. For Correa, there is no question on who leaked that information. He said it was all part of “a campaign of rumors and aggressions from Colombia against Ecuador”. His ambassador in Washington was even more explicit in a letter sent to the American newspaper: “Colombian officials have decided to provide faulty information that harms Ecuador’s image.”

The perception that there is Colombian influence behind every article that criticizes Correa exists since Uribe’s government decided to go public with the content of Reyes’ emails in a press conference, just one day after the attack on the guerrilla chief’s camp.

A high-level Colombian official told SEMANA it was not improbable that the article in the Wall Street Journal provoked the warrant of arrest issued against Juan Manuel Santos by a judge in Sucumbíos. In other words, it would be the Ecuatorian reprisal against the serious condemnation in the papers. An eye for an eye in media terms.

If the recent leaks of information are in fact coming from people within the Colombian government, it would be a tactless mistake, according to two sources well versed in diplomatic issues that asked not to be revealed due to the delicate situation. There is no clarity on what Colombia wins by igniting the fury of a president like Correa—a man who makes Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez look like a lesser evil. In the past year, Correa was at odds with Brazil when he sued Oderbrecht company (If Brazil takes offense, what can we do, he said). He almost ousted the company America Movil, owned by Carlos Slim. The Mexican president, Felipe Calderón had to intervene personally. In April, he restricted imports from Perú and in February expelled two American diplomats just because he felt like.

Correa’s trouble-making reputation works well for Colombia’s strategy: Bogotá appears as the conciliatory party. Ecuador’s assault against all possible scenarios reflects Quito’s frustration with the fact that the Reyes episode has lost all relevance throughout the region. Like a source from the OAS told SEMANA, it was seen as a bilateral issue. That definitely changed when Ecuador petitioned Interpol to capture Colombia’s former minister of defense. A risky move not only in judicial terms, but in diplomatic ones as well. A year ago, Ecuador and Correa had regional solidarity to their favour; respect for national frontiers has been a pillar of the Inter-American system for decades. It will be hard to rally many supporters this time around due to one simple reason: no government will support a precedent that implies a judge from any country can order an arrest warrant against their top government officials.

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