The war of words between Colombia and Venezuela started anew last weekend amid revelations that President Hugo Chávez has actively supported the guerrillas that have been trying to topple the Colombian government for over 40 years. On Thursday, Interpol is expected to confirm the authenticity of documents showing that Chávez gave the FARC arms, $300 million in cash, and facilitated the transfer of additional weapons through Venezuelan air and seaports.
The documents were discovered by the Colombian army in a raid on FARC guerillas just across the border in Ecuador in March 2007, on a laptop belonging to FARC deputy commander Raul Reyes, who was killed in the melee.
In his new rhetorical offensive against Alvaro Uribe, Chávez tries to present the Colombian president as an isolated politician who no longer enjoys any meaningful international support. Much to Chávez’s delight, his position has been bolstered by the Democratic leadership in the U.S. Congress, which slapped Uribe in the face by scuttling the long-planned free-trade agreement with Colombia.
On his weekly TV show Aló Presidente last Sunday, Chávez noted that the Uribe government has poor relations with its neighbors and with the Americans, “since they even rejected the FTA.”
Despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s assurances to the contrary, this decision is a serious setback to President Uribe’s efforts to consolidate a liberal democracy in Colombia.
Having Uribe right next door has always been a thorn in Chávez’s side. The relationship between the two leaders turned bitter last November over a failed mediation effort by the Venezuelan president to release dozens of hostages that the Colombian guerrilla groups have retained for more than five years. Both leaders exchanged recriminations, with Chávez branding Uribe “a sad pawn of the empire.”
The Colombian raid on the Ecuadorian side of the border last March made things even worse. Venezuela had become a safe haven for the FARC and other terrorist groups, and is rumored to have cultivated contacts with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization that killed almost 300 U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983.
An International Narcotics Control Strategy Report by the U.S. State Department stated back in 2006 that “Colombian guerrilla organizations . . . move through parts of Venezuela without significant interference by the Venezuelan security forces.” In January of this year, Chávez stated that in the view of the Venezuelan government, these guerrillas were “real armies” with legitimate political objectives.
Many pundits suggest Chávez timed his latest eruption against Uribe to preempt Interpol’s findings on the documents on the FARC laptop. But Chávez is right when he claims that Uribe is short of friends in Latin America. After the raid on Reyes’s camp, two other populist governments in the region — Ecuador and Nicaragua — also severed ties with Colombia, and the governments of Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina all condemned Bogotá for violating Ecuador’s territorial sovereignty during the raid.
In remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations in October 2007, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper warned about the consequences of rejecting the free-trade agreement: “If the U.S. turns its back on Colombia, it will set us back more than any Latin American dictator could hope to achieve.”
Chávez clearly welcomes the Democrats’ help in his long fight against Colombian democracy.
Until now, the U.S. has been Colombia’s best friend in the hemisphere, and President Uribe has invested a lot of political capital in reaching a free-trade agreement with Washington. Chávez is right that rejecting the agreement deals a blow to the Colombian president, one of the few allies the U.S. has in the region. As he exulted on his TV show, Uribe is going to end up “empty-handed.”
That is, unless the Democrats show themselves willing to stand up for freedom and democracy beyond America’s borders.
– Juan Carlos Hidalgo is project coordinator for Latin America at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.