Regional relations hang in the balance ahead of presidential vote
The normalisation of relations between Bogota and its Venezuelan and Ecuadorian neighbours will pose a challenge for whoever is the winner of Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday.
The two frontrunners in Colombia’s forthcoming presidential vote – the eccentric ecologist Antanas Mockus and Liberal-Conservative Juan-Manuel Santos – agree on at least one thing: that neighbouring countries must be prevented from interfering in the May 30 election. During a televised debate on May 18, all six principal candidates approved a declaration calling on Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez not to interfere in the campaign.
One of the prevailing questions ahead of the presidential vote is whether Mockus, considered the outsider, could chart a new course for Colombian diplomacy. Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, a researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris and a specialist in Latin American affairs, says Bogota is likely to pursue a measure of “diplomatic continuity” on the three main disputes it has with its neighbours no matter who is elected. Nevertheless, a Mockus win could signal a break with some of the thorny incidents of the past.
The US-Colombia military and free trade accord
President Alvaro Uribe’s decision in the summer of 2009 to reinforce Bogota’s military cooperation with Washington will allow the United States to use at least seven military bases on Colombian territory. The move, which was officially aimed at countering terrorism and drug trafficking, prompted the ire of Venezuela’s Chavez, who called the alliance a serious threat to regional peace. For the third time in as many years, Caracas suspended diplomatic relations with Colombia and recalled its ambassador.
According to Kourliandsky, the results of Sunday’s vote will change little. “No candidate has said he would alter this agreement, and even the democratic pole (leftist coalition) candidate has half-heartedly committed himself to respecting the agreement concluded by Alvaro Uribe,” he says. What is more, Bogota is currently “in full negotiations with Washington on a free trade agreement” that is the economic counterpart of the military accord.
The threat of a Colombia-Venezuela military escalation
Under Uribe, relations between Caracas and Bogota were plagued by several violent incidents: the Venezuelan army’s November 2008 destruction of two small bridges on the border between the two countries, the kidnapping and assassination of nine Colombian nationals by an unknown group in Venezuela, and the murder of two Venezuelan soldiers at the border. Suspicions that the Chavez regime offers covert support to Colombia’s FARC rebel group has also weighed heavily on the relationship.
Colombia and Venezuela could start to see warmer ties in the event of a Mockus victory, which is likely to bring about a “predictable thaw” in relations, Kourliandsky says. An administration led by Santos, a former minister of defence and a strong supporter of Uribe’s security policies, could however “perpetuate a freeze” on the relationship, particularly regarding trade. Caracas has imposed a commercial embargo on Bogota, which is now obliged to import goods from Argentina or China.
Colombia-Ecuador: bad memories of Santos
In the middle of the night on March 1, 2008, the Colombian army bombarded a FARC camp located in northern Ecuador and sent commandoes to kill several guerillas, including the organisation’s number two, Raul Reyes. Relations between Quito and Bogota immediately plunged into a deep freeze, with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa denouncing the Colombian operation and amassing troops at the border. Ever since, Ecuador has been a major Colombian adversary, second only to Venezuela. The discovery of documents showing financial ties between Ecuadorian officials and the Colombian guerrillas further strained ties.
The two neighbours have since reconciled, bit by bit. Uribe has made excuses to his Ecuadorian counterpart and normalisation continues. A Mockus win would likely also improve relations with Ecuador – particularly since it was his rival, then defence minister, who personally ordered the raid on the FARC in Ecuadorian territory.
A Mockus administration “would be an excellent thing not only for Colombia but also for the political stability of the whole region”, said a recent editorial in the Ecuadorian daily, Hoy. “On the other hand, if Santos wins, the regional divisions that arose under Uribe might worsen.” If Santos seems a divisive figure, Mockus seems to offer some hope for Colombia’s neighbours.
Brazilia looks set to figure prominently in regional relations regardless of Sunday’s outcome. “No matter who wins, he will have to depend on Brazil, which gets along well with both Chavez’s Venezuela and Correa’s Ecuador,” Kourliandsky says.
This strategy, he points out, would also help ensure Colombia’s representation at the Union of South American Nations, the regional economic and political body created by Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2008.