Los Angeles Times
March 07, 2008
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Even at a rally where the placards, chants and speeches carried a distinctly anti-government flavor, Colombians on Thursday backed President Alvaro Uribe after his soldiers' risky incursion into Ecuador to kill a leftist rebel leader.
The incursion Saturday brought reproval from the Organization of American States and prompted neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela to mass troops at their borders and cut diplomatic ties. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez unleashed a torrent of invective, describing Uribe as a mafioso and a U.S. lackey
"Chavez shouldn't talk in such a vulgar way about our president. That hurts us," said Marina Narvaez, who said she attended the rally because she had survived being forced off her land by paramilitaries in Cordoba state.
Accountant Rafael Escobar said Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa "is not helping things" by touring Latin America to denounce Colombia after the incursion, which killed Raul Reyes, the No. 2 leader in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's largest rebel group. "Leaders should talk among themselves to resolve things."
On a side street just off the central Plaza Bolivar, Vilma Paniza, a department store customer service representative, hurried back to work from the noon rally. "Chavez has a bad attitude," she said. "He wants to dominate us and everyone else and he's not going to."
Planned long before the region's crisis erupted, the rally was organized to underscore the government's role in decades of violence and misery, to remind Colombians that it was not all the fault of rebel groups like the FARC.
But most marchers couldn't bring themselves to knock Uribe for having brought Colombia to its most serious diplomatic standoff in decades.
Their mood is indicative of a public that has rallied behind Uribe, even as Venezuelan and Ecuadorean troops have gathered at the border, those neighbors -- joined by Nicaragua on Thursday -- have broken diplomatic ties and Chavez has threatened to hurt Colombia by freezing trade and using other tactics.
A poll conducted in four cities this week showed Uribe's popularity has climbed since the raid to an 83% approval rating. Although the poll was commissioned by the government, it still reflects popular sentiment, said Cesar Caballero, head of the independent polling firm Concepts and Figures in Bogota.
"First, there is a tremendous solidarity behind Uribe for the gross language Chavez has used toward him," Caballero said. "Also, there is a growing outrage against the FARC for its brutality, kidnappings and extortions, which the government uses at every opportunity in its favor."
Even opinion makers such as magazine columnist Daniel Coronell, who often take an anti-Uribe stance, have lined up behind the president. "The intrusion of the government of Venezuela is a hugely disturbing factor that blocks the path to a resolution."
Nearly all those interviewed at the rally saw the chance of war as remote, despite Chavez's statements and Venezuela's having sent 9,000 troops to its border, along with tanks and aircraft. Ecuador deployed 3,200 troops, and a government spokeswoman announced Thursday that its army had captured five suspected Colombian guerrillas on its side of the line. Colombia has sent no extra troops as yet.
"It's just talk," said Alejandro Alvarez, a lawyer from the eastern city of Arauca. "There is a conflict, but it's a political and diplomatic conflict that won't reach physical war. Chavez can send all the troops he wants. But it's another thing to fire shots."
In Managua, Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega, with Correa at his side, announced that he was cutting diplomatic relations with Colombia.
It was during Correa's visit the night before in Venezuela that Chavez warned not only of a possible nationalization of Colombian companies, but also that trade between the two countries, which last year totaled $5 billion, would be reduced.
Chavez has sealed off most border crossings with Colombia, allowing cars and pedestrians but keeping out all but perishable cargo.
Analysts said a prolonged reduction in Colombian imports, which represent a significant portion of Venezuela's daily foodstuffs, might compound Chavez's domestic problems.
Venezuela is already suffering from widespread food shortages and double-digit inflation, largely as a result of socialist policies that have cut domestic production.
The threats came a day after the Organization of American States passed a resolution criticizing Colombia's incursion one mile into Ecuador. Although Colombia apologized and Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador expressed her satisfaction with the vote, Correa on Thursday said it was unacceptable and demanded the OAS issue a more formal condemnation.
Also in Ecuador, authorities said two Mexican citizens may have died along with Reyes. University students from Mexico were visiting Quito, the Ecuadorean capital, at the time, and some were thought to have visited the rebel camp where Reyes was. One female student was injured in the attack, but Mexico's Foreign Relations Ministry said Thursday that no deaths had been confirmed
Ecuadorean Defense Minister Wellington Sandoval, reacting to reports that U.S. intelligence helped locate Reyes, told a radio reporter that Colombia must have received help via "technology that Latin America does not have." He said the bombs that killed Reyes all dropped within a 50-meter radius and seemed to be "smart bombs."
Colombia's Defense Ministry said Wednesday that Reyes was located through a tip from a "demobilized" guerrilla.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Thursday requested a hearing or a classified session with senior Colombian officials to review information obtained from three laptop computers recovered in the jungle camp where Reyes was killed.
Colombian authorities said this week that the information includes documents indicating the FARC received $300 million from Chavez and that the rebels were seeking to acquire uranium, possibly for a weapon.
Special correspondents Paul Rosero in Quito and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez in Bogota and Cecilia Sánchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.