On July 15 the Colombian government held a press conference to announce its possession of evidence that the Venezuelan government is harboring Colombian guerrillas, including high-ranking leaders, on Venezuela’s side of the border. The following week Colombia’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Alfonso Hoyos, presented to that regional body high-resolution graphics of more than 80 camps said to be housing nearly1500 guerrillas. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez responded immediately by severing diplomatic relations and putting Venezuela’s armed forces on high alert. Over Venezuelan 20,000 troops are now stationed on the two nations’1250-mile border.
Before the Colombian government’s announcement it had looked as though the previously tense relations between the two countries had been warming. President-elect Juan Manual Santos invited Chavez to his inauguration, while Chavez had approved a meeting between Venezuela’s foreign minister and Santos’minister-designate.
For Chavez, though, this crisis isn’t just about Colombia; it is also the latest example of the power of U.S. influence in Colombia. On Monday he said he considers an armed attack from Colombia “probable” and accused the U.S. government of pushing for such an attack, calling the U.S. “the great instigator.” Undeterred by the fact that the U.S. is the biggest consumer of Venezuelan oil, Chavez pledged to cut off shipments of oil to the U.S. if such an attack occurs, “even if everybody over here has to eat stones.”
The State Department quickly denied intentions of any attack on Venezuela, calling Chavez’ response “petulant.”A State Department official assured that "the United States has no intention of engaging in military action against Venezuela.” Chavez was not convinced, however, saying, “a while back Colombia handed over its sovereignty to the Unites States,” which is “expert at inventing any old excuse to invade nations.”
In referencing Colombia’ handover of sovereignty, Chavez is clearly alluding to the U.S.-Colombia agreement, signed in October of last year, allowing the U.S. use of seven Colombian air and military bases.
While Chavez may be the most outspoken critic of the plan, he is far from the only one. When the agreement was initially signed, opposition quickly mounted from unions, opposition political parties, human rights groups, and regional governments. A primary concern of all opposed was the agreement’s fueling of regional tensions, especially after a Pentagon budget document unearthed by the agreement’ opponents described the U.S. presence at the Palanquero air base as an “pportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America,” and discussed the possibility of using the base to confront the "threat" of what it called "anti-U.S. governments."
Concerns continue to grow about the bases and U.S. military presence in the region; now even Colombia’s Constitutional Court has expressed reservations. Though when signing the agreement President Uribe tried to circumvent the Colombian Congress, claiming it was merely an extension of a previous agreement and not a new treaty subject to Congressional oversight, a review by the Constitutional Court may soon result in the bases agreement being declared unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, the agreement continues to rattle nerves both inside and out of Colombia. Colombian civil society continues to organize against the bases agreement, most notably through the new Colombia No Bases Coalition, a collection of more than 150 Colombian and U.S. organizations opposed to the agreement. That coalition joins with the new Continental Campaign against Foreign Military Bases, made up of more than 75 international and national groups. Modeled after the Continental Campaign against the Free Trade Area of the Americas that successfully derailed the US government's plans for a region-wide free trade agreement, the campaign seeks the removal of U.S. and other foreign bases from Latin America and the Caribbean. The statement issued at the launch of the campaign called the intensification of US military presence "a clear attack against peace, security and sovereignty of all countries in the region."
Another element of uncertainty in the current regional tensions is the upcoming leadership change in Colombia. In just a few weeks former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos will take over from his former boss, Alvaro Uribe. So far, Santos has refused to take a stand on the tensions, side-stepping the issue by saying, “I think the best contribution we can make is to say nothing. President Uribe is the President of the Republic until August 7.” Nonetheless, while Defense Minister Santos oversaw the 2008 attack on a FARC camp in Ecuador, another incident likely at the forefront of Chavez’ mind.
Though he has denied Colombia’s allegations, Chavez has attempted to distance himself from the FARC, for which he has previously expressed support. “Boys, we’e not in the sixties,” he was quoted as saying. The “Colombian armed groups must reconsider their armed strategy.” More of that kind of conciliatory attitude is needed from both sides if this crisis is to be averted.
With Uribe keeping up the pressure, Santos refusing to take a stand and Chavez continuing to insist on keeping tens of thousands of troops at the border, it has fallen to neighboring countries to attempt to lower tensions. On Thursday a special meeting of Unasur, the South American intergovernmental organization, will be held to seek a solution to the crisis. Notably, the U.S. is not a member of Unasur, as it is of the OAS. A solution will likely be difficult to find, however. As Jose Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the OAS said on CNN En Español Tuesday, "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 guerrillas, but the truth is that Colombia can't control them either."