Colombia A Flashpoint In Chavez Feud With U.S.

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
March 5, 2008 By Simon Romero
CARACAS, Venezuela — In the four days since Colombian forces crossed into Ecuador and killed a guerrilla leader taking refuge there, tensions between Colombia — Washington’s top regional ally — and its leftist neighbors have erupted, highlighting the fact that Colombia and its policies are increasingly viewed here as American proxies.
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela called Colombia the “Israel of Latin America” saying both countries bombed and invaded neighbors by invoking “a supposed right to defense” that he said was ordered by the United States. He has sent troops to the border and expelled Colombia’s ambassador. His agriculture minister said Tuesday that the frontier with Colombia would be closed to stop commerce.
In turn, Colombia said it would file charges against Mr. Chávez with the International Criminal Court, accusing him of assisting Colombia’s largest rebel group.
Meanwhile, President Bush fiercely defended Colombia, which receives $600 million a year in American aid to fight the leftist rebels and drug trafficking. He used the diplomatic crisis to push Congress to approve a Colombia trade deal that has languished for more than a year because of concerns among senior Democrats over human rights abuses there.
Mr. Bush, who telephoned Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, on Tuesday morning, told reporters at the White House, “I told the president that America fully supports Colombia’s democracy, and that we firmly oppose any acts of aggression that could destabilize the region.”
Employing a new strategy to portray the trade agreement with Colombia as an issue of national security, Mr. Bush used the occasion to call on Congress to ratify the deal as a way of countering leaders like Mr. Chávez who had emerged as scourges of American policies in the region.
“If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere,” Mr. Bush said.
Although Colombia violated the sovereignty of Ecuador, not Venezuela, in its raid, Mr. Chávez, an ally of Ecuador, has taken the lead in accusing Colombia of being an American stooge. That has been a favorite theme of his, especially since November, when Colombia abruptly withdrew support for Mr. Chávez’s mediation with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Adding to the tensions on Tuesday, Colombia’s vice president, Francisco Santos, said Colombian forces had found evidence that the FARC had been seeking the ingredients to make a radioactive dirty bomb.
Material found on a laptop computer recovered in the raid into Ecuador provided the basis for Mr. Santos’s accusations about a dirty bomb, a weapon that combines highly radioactive material with conventional explosives to disperse deadly dust that people would inhale.
“This shows that these terrorist groups, supported by the economic power provided by drug trafficking, constitute a grave threat not just to our country but to the entire Andean region and Latin America,” Mr. Santos said at a United Nations disarmament meeting in Geneva, in a statement that was posted in Spanish on the conference’s Web site. The rebels were “negotiating to get radioactive material, the primary base for making dirty weapons of destruction and terrorism,” he said.
It was unclear from Mr. Santos’s statement with whom the rebels were negotiating.
Mr. Santos made his claim based on information provided Monday in Bogotá by Colombia’s national police chief about the FARC’s negotiations for 110 pounds of uranium, obtained from the laptop computer of Raúl Reyes, the senior FARC commander killed Saturday in Ecuador.
Colombia’s government also said this week that it had obtained information on the computer showing that Mr. Chávez was channeling $300 million to the FARC. The information is the basis for its plan to file charges against Mr. Chávez in the International Criminal Court, Mr. Uribe said Tuesday in Bogotá.
The tensions produced a heated diplomatic exchange during an emergency meeting convened Tuesday by the Organization of American States in Washington, during which several countries denounced Colombia’s actions as a violation of Ecuadorean sovereignty.
Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador of Ecuador demanded that the O.A.S. formally condemn the actions by Colombia, dispatch a fact-finding mission to investigate the events on its border, and call a meeting of regional foreign ministers to consider further action.
“Ecuador rejects any effort by Colombia to avoid responsibility for violating its sovereignty, which is a right that secures the peaceful coexistence of all nations,” Ms. Salvador said. “Diplomatic apologies are not enough.”
An apology was not all she got. Ambassador Camilo Ospina of Colombia strongly denied accusations that Colombian troops used military force on Ecuadorean territory, saying that aircraft fired into Ecuador from the Colombian side of the border.
He acknowledged that after the bombing, Colombian forces entered Ecuador to examine the FARC camp. And what they found, he said, was evidence that Ecuador had been harboring members of the FARC.
Mr. Ospina said that, in addition to the alleged payment by Mr. Chavez, the information found on the laptops that Colombian troops seized indicated that President Rafael Correa’s government had met several times with the FARC and allowed them to set up permanent bases in Ecuadorean territory. He said Colombia would seek charges against President Chávez at the International Criminal Court.
“There is not the least doubt that the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador have been negotiating with terrorists,” Mr. Ospina said. “Allowing terrorist groups to keep camps on their territory border for the planning and execution of terrorist acts is a crime and a clear violation of international treaties.” Television in Venezuela also broadcast images of tank battalions heading to the border, following a threat by Mr. Chávez on Sunday that Colombia would be inviting war if it carried out an incursion in Venezuela similar to the one on Saturday in a remote Amazonian province of Ecuador that killed 21 guerrillas.
Mr. Chávez’s threat, which included a taunt that Venezuela would use its Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets to attack Colombia, has been interpreted here as a sign that Mr. Chávez stands ready to defend the FARC, a group classified as terrorists in the United States and Europe that is reported to operate without hindrance along Venezuela’s porous 1,300-mile border with Colombia.
Contrasting the FARC’s image in Colombia as a group that finances itself through cocaine trafficking and abductions and still plants land mines in rural areas, documentaries on state television here in Venezuela portray the FARC as an insurgency born out of efforts to combat Colombia’s moneyed elite.
On his Sunday television program, Mr. Chávez went further by calling for a minute of silence to mourn for Mr. Reyes, the fallen guerrilla leader whose real name was Luis Édgar Devia.
“Chávez is effectively supporting narcoterrorists who take refuge in Venezuela and Ecuador while saying a democratically elected leader of Colombia cannot fight back,” said Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations who is a vocal critic of Mr. Chávez.
Still, Mr. Uribe, Colombia’s president, is struggling to convince other countries in the region of Colombia’s need to carry out the foray into Ecuador. Even if they might agree with Mr. Uribe in private, leaders are hesitant to publicly back him, given sensitivities over territorial sovereignty.
“Uribe hasn’t developed much of a foreign policy strategy beyond depending on the United States,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington. “This puts him into a bit of a bind.”
Indeed, few places can profess such longstanding support for the United States as Colombia, which sent battalions to fight alongside American troops in the Korean War.
Despite remaining the largest supplier of cocaine to the United States, Colombia has emerged as a top ally of the Bush administration, with hundreds of American military advisers welcomed there to assist Colombian security forces in counterinsurgency and antinarcotics operations.
But just as Mr. Uribe may be suffering because of his close ties to the United States, he may also be fortunate to have Mr. Chávez as his main adversary. Other countries in the region are increasingly uncomfortable with Mr. Chávez’s belligerence as concern emerges over Venezuela’s intervention in a matter involving Colombia and Ecuador.
“South America is not prepared for conflicts, and we do not want conflicts,” Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, told reporters in Brazil on Tuesday, explaining that his government would try to negotiate a solution to the dispute along with other countries.
Jenny Carolina González contributed reporting from Bogotá, Colombia, Uta Harnischfeger from Zurich and Ginger Thompson from Washington.