March 11, 2008
Talk of war in the Andes has faded almost as quickly as it flared - showing that for all their bluster, none of the three leaders involved could afford a protracted confrontation.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's government announced Sunday it was restoring full diplomatic ties with Colombia and reopening its embassy in Bogota after smoothing over a crisis sparked by Colombia's cross-border attack on a rebel base in Ecuador. Venezuela also invited back Colombian diplomats expelled by Chavez last week.
But some watchers of Latin American politics viewed the quick reconciliation as a superficial patching up of deeper disputes - and a politically expedient way out of a damaging conflict not wanted or needed by Chavez, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe or Ecuador's Rafael Correa.
"They probably all wanted a quick settlement. Ecuador had won sympathy as the aggrieved party, Venezuela had gotten good press as the champion of sovereignty and Colombia had accomplished its goal in killing the FARC leader - and an apology was a low price to pay for ending the episode," said Shelley McConnell, a Latin America expert at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.
As he apologized Friday, Uribe also pledged to never again carry out another act like the March 1 strike on Ecuadorean soil, which killed 25 people including Raul Reyes, a top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Just days after deploying troops to their borders in response, Correa and Chavez shook hands with the U.S.-allied Uribe on Friday in a stunning turnaround that ended tense debate at a summit in the Dominican Republic.
Widespread criticism of the Colombian military incursion among Latin American leaders "allows Chavez to characterize the incident as a diplomatic victory," said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East.
And after having threatened to dramatically scale back trade with Colombia, the deal let Chavez avoid "having to pay an economic price for his stands," he added.
Colombia is a major trading partner, providing billions of dollars in needed imports each year, including milk and other food items that have been scarce recently in Venezuela.
Chavez was not the only leader who fell back to a pragmatic stance. Uribe dropped a threat to seek charges against Chavez at an international court for allegedly supporting the FARC.
At the same time, the crisis allowed Uribe to air out long-held complaints that rebels routinely take refuge in Colombia's leftist-led neighboring countries.
Colombian officials have publicly released a collection of documents found on a rebel laptop claiming Chavez and Correa conspired with the guerrillas.
By forcefully making his case at the summit, "Uribe put up an amazing display of diplomatic brinksmanship to end up with the upper hand," said Patrick Esteruelas, a Latin America analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group. "Correa and Chavez could not afford to address any more questions concerning possible links with the FARC."
All three leaders also managed to save face through the diplomatic truce.
After Uribe pledged to respect international borders, Ecuador and Venezuela "reaffirmed their commitment to combatting terrorism" - a cooperative signal that could help make Uribe's apology more palatable to the Colombian military and public, McConnell said.
But the underlying tensions remain unresolved.
Correa said Saturday it will be "difficult to recover trust" in Uribe's U.S.-allied government.
Chavez has openly expressed sympathy for the FARC - a major irritation for Uribe - and more friction is likely as the Venezuelan leader tries to help broker a swap of imprisoned guerrillas for rebel-held hostages. The captives include three U.S. military contractors and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.
Meanwhile, according to articles published Monday in The Wall Street Journal and Mexico City daily El Universal, Mexican authorities are investigating whether Mario Dagoberto Diaz, a naturalized Mexican citizen and engineering research professor in central Mexico, is a Cuban intelligence agent who helped Mexicans connect with FARC guerrillas.
They believe Diaz may have led a group of five Mexican university students to the rebel camp that was attacked and financed the FARC's activities in Mexico, according to the articles.
Contacted Monday, the Mexican government neither confirmed nor denied the information.
Diaz's attorney, Carlos Martinez, said his client has no ties with the FARC, adding that authorities have not formally charged Diaz with any crime.