Colombia and improving regional relations
The announcement by President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia that his government will recommence negotiations with the main guerilla grouping, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), towards a solution of their continuing contention over the movement of narcotics in the context of a wider, long-running civil war, has been welcomed on all sides. So-called peace talks, periodically ruptured largely by the FARC, have been a continuing feature of the country’s domestic relations. And presidents preceding Santos have periodically indicated possibilities of a ceasefire with the grouping, only for relations to eventually worsen again.
Particularly enamoured of the return to peace talks has, naturally, been the President of Venezuela, often accused by one or other Colombian leaders of giving critical support to the FARC. These accusations have been repeated by the United States which has persistently argued, against similarly persistent rejection by President Hugo Chávez, that Venezuela willfully provides cover and free passage for the FARC, as its operatives move narcotics from Colombia particularly to the Venezuelan state of Apure, and eventually through Central America and up to North America.
In that context, from time to time relations between Colombia and Venezuela have become seriously poisoned, with periodic breaks in any amelioration of the relations. The border between the two countries is 1400 miles, and President Chávez has tended to argue that Colombia is as much to blame for the freedom with which the FARC has roamed there. He has insisted that the Colombian decision to unilaterally impose border tolls only has the result of diminishing economic activity on the Venezuelan side.
In the midst of the ups and downs of relations, however, the two sides, both benefiting handsomely from the production of petroleum and natural gas, have felt a need to consolidate economic initiatives that would be mutually beneficial. Thus Santos’ predecessor in Colombia, President Uribe, five years ago moved to make deals to provide scope for natural gas production, at a time when Colombia’s exports to Venezuela, in spite of contentions made by Uribe that Chávez was protecting the FARC, had reached their highest level ever at US$4 billion per year. In complementary terms, Chávez himself offered to mediate between the Colombian authorities and the FARC, while also seeking to induce Colombia to join one of his pet creations, the Bank of the South, his version of an indigenous World Bank.
The current efforts to restart the peace process suggest that both sides, including the new Colombian leadership of the Santos government, remain conscious of the possibilities of finding some kind of rapprochement between the two countries, in the light of a variety of initiatives towards a reorganisation of regional relationships in South America as a whole. For one thing, the menace of narcotics movement is increasingly perceived as damaging, even though both Colombia and the United States have periodically asserted that Venezuela itself benefits most from the trade. For another, Chávez’s ambitions are driving him in the direction of engaging in the construction of a pipeline that would permit the country to move crude oil to the Pacific coast of Colombia to facilitate easier transit of oil to China.
In one sense, then, Santos, in initiating peace negotiations with the FARC, instead of using suppression as the sole instrument of ridding the country of what has been a virtual civil war over an extended period, is responding to a new climate in South American relations that suggests a concentration on reorganization of regional economic relations and institutions on the continent, to take advantage of Colombia’s relatively strong industrial base which produced nearly five per cent growth in the last decade, even when interrupted by the Western countries’ recessions of 2008-2009, and the present.
During a period of contentions between the two countries in that period, which saw a deterioration of political relations accompanied a 30% decline in trade between them, an attempt at reconciliation was quickly made, leading to a decision by both countries to increase mutual surveillance of their border, and to seek to reduce the serious indebtedness of Venezuela to Colombia. In August of 2010, President Santos felt comfortable enough to publicly state that “President Chávez and I are putting the interests of our people above personal conveniences.”
The persistent question has remained, however, in recent times, whether Venezuela has been consistently taking sufficient steps to control the movement of the FARC elements trading in narcotics, a position which the United States, especially, has continued to take. This seems periodically to lead to both domestic pressure on the Colombia leadership, under strong pressure from the United States, to insist that Chávez continues to facilitate the flow of drugs to the Caribbean and on to Central America and the US.
In September of last year, President Obama was reported as having “signed a memorandum that designated Venezuela, for the seventh time, as a country that failed to meet international obligations to fight drug trafficking.” This reflects, in part, it was reported, the continuation of a a Venezuelan decision made by Chávez in 2005, to cease cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
The discussion of the narcotics transiting problem was an item on the agenda of the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast, in April of this year. The conference came to no meaningful conclusions, as the Latin Americans insisted that the demand problem must be faced.
Under the rubric of ‘Citizen Security and Transnational Organised Crime,’ the heads of state and government agreed to “strengthen bilateral, subregional, regional and international cooperation to prevent… transnational crime in all its forms and manifestations.” This is as far as the collective heads could go.
It would now appear that Presidents Chávez and Santos feel constrained to proceed bilaterally, with the former going into elections this year, and the latter due to face the polls in 2014. Whether these are relevant dates inducing a coming together again on this issue, is left to be seen.