This is an August 2007 copy of a website maintained by the Center for International Policy. It is posted here for historical purposes. The Center for International Policy no longer maintains this resource.

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Last Updated:3/30/05
A Dangerous Message to South America
By David Coddon, CIP intern
January 27, 2005

The Bush Administration is picking another unnecessary fight, this time in South America. The trouble began in mid-January, when the Colombian government was forced to admit that it had paid bounty hunters to abduct a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, a so-called FARC "diplomat" who had been living in neighboring Venezuela. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a fiery populist, responded by recalling his ambassador and threatening to sever economic ties until Colombia issues an apology.

Cooler heads have pointed out that neither party to this dispute is without blame. Suspicions have long been brewing about links between Chávez and Colombian leftist groups, and the Venezuelan leader has yet to explain why a prominent member of a group generally considered "terrorist" was able to live comfortably on his country's soil. For its part, Colombia - whose president, Álvaro Uribe, is Chávez's polar opposite, a rightist and one of the most pro-U.S. leaders in Latin American history - should not be in the business of paying thugs to abduct people overseas, then lying about it. For weeks, the Bogota government insisted that the "arrest" happened in the border city of Cúcuta, Colombia.

Even as tensions grow, with some newspapers publishing detailed accounts of both countries' military capabilities, moderates on both sides of the border are calling for the two presidents to meet as soon as possible to smooth things over. A prolonged crisis will do grave damage to both countries, which share a border more than 1,000 miles long. Each has serious domestic problems-Colombia a civil war that has been raging for forty years and Venezuela a society that is deeply polarized between the president's supporters and opponents. A decade-old trade agreement between the two countries generates some 2.5 billion dollars each year. The two countries have too much to lose. The best and only acceptable outcome is a negotiated settlement.

The United States, however, has fanned the flames and prolonged the crisis unnecessarily by unambiguously taking the side of Colombia, a country that currently receives about $700 million per year in mostly military U.S. aid. On January 16, U.S. Ambassador William Wood made clear that "we support 100% the assertions coming from the (Colombian) Presidential Palace." It is no secret that the Bush Administration despises Hugo Chávez and would rather see him out of power-during a recent Senate Confirmation Hearing, Condoleeza Rice called him a "negative force" in the region, and Chávez responded with a sexist remark that won't be repeated here-but it is unclear how taking sides in this fight, and thus exacerbating an already dangerous situation, serves America's national interests.

At this stage, Washington's goal should be to defuse the crisis. This means ratcheting down tensions with Venezuela. Hugo Chávez isn't going anywhere--he is an elected leader, and Venezuela is our fourth-largest source of imported oil. The Bush administration, which claims to value democracy so strongly, will have to get used to dealing with countries that happen to elect leaders who disagree with the United States. Instead of throwing its weight behind one side in a conflict that should have been over by now, the U.S. government should facilitate talks between Chavez and Uribe, perhaps involving other Andean leaders or the Organization of American States.

If the Bush administration chooses continued belligerence, however, the way out will be much more difficult than it has to be. With the unconditional backing of the region's dominant power, Colombia will feel little need to negotiate, apologize, or agree to some face-saving arrangement. Unless our diplomats change course, the message we will send to South America is that we are more interested in dealing a blow to Hugo Chávez than we are in promoting regional stability.

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