South America’s Drift toward Unity

Exclusive: Over the past decade, as the United States has focused on Middle East “terrorism,” its traditional sphere of influence in Latin America has spun further out of the U.S. orbit, with major regional countries coalescing around areas of cooperation. This pattern is deepening despite occasional political flare-ups, writes Andrés Cala.

By Andrés Cala

If you just read the recent headlines, it would seem that the “anti-imperialist” Latin American bloc, led by Venezuela, is gearing up for a new showdown with “pro-Yankee” Colombia, much like last decade’s escalation of tensions that climaxed with ominous saber-rattling.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos declared that he wanted to join the U.S.-led military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), causing Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and even Brazil to denounce what they saw as a threat that would undermine nascent regional bonding that promises to have profound geopolitical significance.

Ex-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. (Photo credit: World Economic Forum)

Even before the NATO flap, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro had threatened to withdraw his country’s support for Colombia’s peace talks aimed at ending a half century of bloodshed. Those negotiations were partly orchestrated by Maduro’s mentor, the late Hugo Chávez. Why was Maduro, Chávez’s successor so upset? Because Santos had hosted a visit to Bogota by Henrique Capriles, Maduro’s nemesis and defeated presidential contender.

But these disputes are a smokescreen. Colombia cannot, even if it wanted to, join NATO, and Colombian officials have since corrected the original statement. Instead, Colombia will likely sign a cooperation agreement with NATO. Santos also will not seek to undermine Maduro nor support his ouster. And Maduro will not withdraw support from the peace process nor pursue a confrontation with Santos.

More than ever the two governments depend on each other and both support more regional integration. All the alarmist headline grabbing is just populist-driven rhetoric aimed at finessing internal political hard-liners within Colombia and Venezuela.

Moreover, the recent outbursts must be understood in the context of Latin America’s decades-long evolution toward economic and political stability. Put simply, both Colombia and Venezuela intend to keep transitioning toward a sustainable center. That reality was further underscored on Wednesday when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Venezuelan foreign minister Elías Jaua in Antigua, Guatemala, and announced talks aimed at reducing the strains in relations between the two countries.

But such developments don’t bar more demagoguery by the Venezuelan and Colombian governments directed at each other, mostly to placate domestic sentiments from the Right and Left that might otherwise destabilize the two countries and threaten the underlying renewal of ties. To better understand this dynamic, let’s back-track.

Brutal Counterinsurgency

Santos was elected in 2010 as the handpicked successor of the right-wing populist Alvaro Uribe, who was the antithesis of Chávez in Venezuela. Santos was expected to extend Uribe’s policies that improved the economy and reclaimed large swaths of Colombian territory from the control of narcoguerrilla movements, namely the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército Nacional de Liberación (ELN), but at the expense of human rights and democratic institutions.

When Uribe took over in 2002, he unleashed brutal paramilitaries against the FARC, an 18,000-strong force of well-armed and trained combatants. He also strengthened Colombia’s armed forces, a combination that broke a stalemate and pushed back the guerrillas.

But the price was paid with thousands of civilian lives. In effect, the Colombian state had gotten into bed with paramilitaries and drug dealers to gain the upper hand. Uribe’s more radical and authoritarian right-wing regime merged rich landowners, narcotraffickers, paramilitaries and corrupt politicians and did so with the support of war-weary Colombian voters.

Geopolitically, Uribe was warmly embraced by President George W. Bush and emerged as the bulwark for U.S.-driven policies to contain the left-wing socialist movement of Venezuela’s Chávez. The result was a fractured Latin America, split in two flanks led by the two neighbors.

For years, the two countries were at each other’s throat. Chávez saw Colombia as opening the door to a U.S. invasion to depose him, and Colombia saw Venezuela as a shelter for Colombian guerrillas. Venezuela and Colombia came to the point of mobilizing troops to their border.

When Uribe failed to gain court approval for a third consecutive presidential term, Santos stepped up as Uribe’s stand-in. However, to the surprise of most, Santos moved to completely overhaul the country’s foreign and domestic policy, opting for more regional integration and strengthening democratic institutions which Uribe had undermined.

Santos had inherited what amounted to a trade embargo with Venezuela and strained relations with another neighbor, Ecuador. In short, Colombia had few friends in Latin America and only conditional support from the United States. Colombia lost valuable markets and Colombian guerrillas were exploiting bilateral frictions to their benefit.

While clearly no friend of the Left, Santos showed himself to be a pragmatist. Rather than making Colombia subservient to Washington, Santos concluded that Colombia’s best interest would be served by strengthening ties to the rest of Latin America and to the emerging global titans like China and India.

Only three days after taking office, Santos reestablished relations with Venezuela, which Chávez had severed with Uribe. Chávez agreed to deny Colombian guerrillas use of his territory and to reactivate commerce. Colombia agreed not to interfere in Venezuela affairs. Colombia also dropped out of a military deal with the U.S. that was signed by Uribe.

By intertwining the economic fortunes of Colombia and Venezuela, Santos made it more costly for Venezuela to threaten Colombia, regardless of ideology. Chávez and Cuba also proved instrumental in getting the FARC to negotiate with Santos, creating the best chance for peace in Colombia after more than half a century of ongoing war with multiple rebel groups.

Within months of Santos taking office, Colombia reestablished relations with Ecuador through the mediation of Chávez.  Santos also visited Brazil and Argentina, mending fences with those two major South American nations. In less than four months, Colombia had reversed almost a decade of diplomatic setbacks with the rest of Latin America.

Renewed Tensions

So, the renewed bilateral tensions between Venezuela and Colombia appear to be the result of unrelated domestic affairs. After the death of Chávez and a narrow election victory, Maduro is struggling to assert control over Venezuela. He faces his most direct challenge from his own military, not the Capriles-led opposition. That said, pressure from Capriles and markets are the perfect excuse for the military to depose Maduro.

Maduro’s threats against Colombia and his raucous conspiracy theories are directed at a domestic audience, not Colombia, as he tries to show that he’s as strong a caudillo as Chávez was. Meanwhile, the economy needs time to be realigned sustainably by redirecting investment to dwindling oil production.

Colombia faces a similar threat from within, not from its military, but from Uribe, who is using his huge political capital (he’s significantly more popular than any other leader, including Santos) to undermine the peace process and cement impunity for the widespread human rights violations committed during his rule.

Uribe is legally shielded from prosecution as a former president. Only congress could investigate him, which won’t happen while he retains his popularity. That is why he has become Santos’s sharpest critic. To secure his hold on Colombian decision-making, Uribe has mobilized political opposition and public opinion against the peace process.

That is where distractions like NATO and Capriles come in. Colombia is not targeting Venezuela’s Maduro nor risking losing the gains from Santos’s rapprochement with Latin America. But Santos needs to secure votes on the Right to solidify his reelection in 2014. Currently, his biggest obstacle is Uribe, who can’t seek another term barring a constitutional change but is expected to run for the Senate and to field a puppet candidate for next year’s presidential election.

Basically, Uribe is eying a political comeback, in part, to guarantee no prosecutions for the abuses that were committed by his paramilitary forces and the military. Santos is supporting Colombian courts investigating human rights crimes and illegal land claims by paramilitaries, who were often acting under the orders of Uribe’s local and regional bosses and drug traffickers. While Uribe isn’t specifically targeted, the investigations are closing in on him.

Uribe also is accusing Santos of yielding to the FARC, but that is just because any land reforms that would accompany a peace settlement would affect Uribe’s rich landowner supporters and their paramilitary backers. However, Santos realizes that a peace deal with the FARC would secure his reelection.

Colombia is gambling its history, justice and future in the 2014 presidential elections. Colombians must choose between a long-term peace and reconciliation process along with investigations into past abuses, or a reborn Uribista movement which will not only return Colombia to a populist, narcoparamilitary regime, but also bury the truth indefinitely.

Of course the political game the recent tough talk between Venezuela’s Maduro and Colombia’s Santos is risky. The rhetoric could get out of hand and damage the bilateral relationship between the two neighbors and threaten the improved regional cooperation.

But as long as words remain only words, both Maduro and Santos should be able to buy enough time to hold off their domestic rivals. Otherwise, it’s back to square one for both.

Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.