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July 2010, Week 4

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Wed, 28 Jul 2010 22:25:45 -0400
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No Place for Washington in Colombia-Venezuela Row

A process of South American diplomacy could resolve the
Colombia-Venezuela dispute. The US should keep its
distance

By Mark Weisbrot 
The Guardian 
July 28, 2010
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/jul/28/colombia-venezuela-washington-south-america

In March I wrote about the Obama administration's
contribution to the election campaign under way in
Venezuela, where voters will choose a new national
assembly in September. I predicted that certain things
would happen before September, among them some new
"discoveries" that Venezuela supports terrorism.
Venezuela has had 13 elections or referenda since Hugo
Chávez was first elected in 1998, and in the run-up to
most of them, Washington has usually done something to
influence the political and media climate.

The intentions were already clear on March 11, when
General Douglas Fraser, the head of the US Southern
Command was testifying to the US Senate. In response to
a question from Senator John McCain about Venezuela's
alleged support for terrorism, Fraser said:

    "We have continued to watch very closely . We have
    not seen any connections specifically that I can
    verify that there has been a direct government-to-
    terrorist connection."

The next day he recanted his testimony after meeting
with the US state department's top official for Latin
America, Arturo Valenzuela.

This made it clear that the "terrorist" message was
going to be a very important part of Washington's
campaign. Even the Bush administration had never forced
its military officers to retract their statements when
they contradicted the state department's political
agenda in Latin America, which they sometimes did.

Unfortunately, the campaign continues. Last Thursday,
Colombia's ambassador to the Organisation of the
American States (OAS) accused Venezuela at an
extraordinary meeting of the OAS of harbouring 1,500
guerillas, and asked for the OAS to take action. The
timing was noteworthy to many observers. President Lula
da Silva of Brazil noted that it "seemed strange that
this occurs a few days before [President] Uribe [of
Colombia] leaves office. The new president has given
signals that he wants to build peace [with Venezuela].
Everything was going well until Uribe made this
denunciation."

Venezuela responded by breaking diplomatic relations
with Colombia. It had previously cut off much of its
trade with Colombia over the past two years, in
response to Colombia's agreement with Washington to
expand its military presence at seven US military bases
in Colombia. Since Venezuela had been Colombia's
largest trading partner in the region, it is possible
that the new president, Juan Manuel Santos, was looking
to improve relations for business reasons if nothing
else. He had invited Chávez to his inauguration.

Of course, Uribe does not necessarily take orders from
Washington, but it would be naive to assume that
someone who has received more than $6bn from the US
would not check with his benefactors before doing
something like this. The fact that the US state
department immediately took Colombia's side in the
dispute is further indication that they approved. Even
Washington's (rightwing) allies in the region did not
take sides, with the government of Chile, for example,
issuing a neutral statement; this would have been the
normal diplomatic protocol for Washington too, if this
were not part of a political and public relations
campaign against Venezuela.

Other governments clearly saw Colombia's action as a
political move, and were upset with what looked like
the OAS being manipulated for these purposes. President
Lula was cited in the Brazilian press saying that the
venue of the dispute should be moved to Unasur, because
the US would tilt the negotiations toward Colombia and
against Venezuela. Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo
Patiño, strongly criticised the head of the OAS, José
Miguel Insulza, for not having consultation before
granting Colombia's request for a meeting of the OAS
permanent council. Patiño said that Insulza had shown
his "absolute incapacity" to direct the organisation
and to "look for peace in the region". Bolivia's
president, Evo Morales, had even harsher rhetoric for
Uribe, calling him "a loyal representative of the US
government, with its military bases in Colombia
designed to provoke a war between Venezuela, Ecuador
and Nicaragua."

This dispute highlights the importance of the
institutional changes that the left-of-centre
governments in Latin America are trying to make. The
increasing importance of Unasur, displacing the OAS,
has become vital to Latin American progress and
stability. For example, because of the influence of the
US (as usual, with a handful of rightwing allies) in
the OAS, it failed to take stronger action to restore
the democratically elected government of President
Zelaya of Honduras last year.

When Bolivia was having problems with attempts by the
separatist, extra-parliamentary opposition - including
violence and de-stabilisation efforts - it was Unasur
that met in Santiago in September 2008 and threw its
weight behind the democratic government of Evo Morales.
When the US decided last fall to expand its presence at
the military bases in Colombia, Unasur reached an
agreement - which included Colombia - that prohibited
these bases from being used for any actions outside of
the country.

As to the substance of Colombia's latest claims,
guerillas and paramilitaries have been crossing the
2,000km border with Venezuela - much of it dense
jungle, mountains and all kinds of difficult terrain -
for decades. There is no evidence that anything has
changed recently, and nothing to indicate that the
Venezuelan government, which has extradited guerillas
to Colombia, supports any armed groups - as General
Fraser testified before he was apparently forced to
take it back.

On Tuesday Insulza - perhaps feeling like he had gone
too far to please Washington - told CNN en Español that
"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
guerillas, but the truth is that Colombia can't control
them either." He might have added that the US, with all
its vastly greater resources and superior technology,
doesn't have an easy time controlling the flow of
drugs, guns, and people across its own much more
manageable border with Mexico.

On Thursday there will be an emergency meeting of
Unasur, and hopefully a process of diplomacy will begin
to resolve the dispute. Certainly there will be a
better chance of success to the extent that Washington
- and its political campaigns against governments that
it doesn't like - can be kept at a distance.

c Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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