Monday, March 03, 2008

The Developing Crisis between Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela

To be up front, I am not a specialist in international relations, and in terms of Latin America, I am nowhere near as studied in Colombia/Venezuela/Ecuador as I am in Brazil or the Southern Cone.

That said, the new developments between Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela are rather intense, and have I think a real chance to get worse. Late last week, Colombia announced it had killed Raul Reyes, FARC's "number 2" (although, as Boz points out, this is a simplification of a complicated command structure in the FARC). As the story develops, it appears that Colombia actually invaded Ecuadoran airspace, and the Colombian military crossed into Ecuador without permission to kill Reyes, who was in Ecuador's national territory. In response, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has sent troops to the Colombia-Ecuador border, withdrawn his ambassador from Colombia, and expelled Colombia's ambassador from Ecuador. Hugo Chávez has also shut down Venezuela's embassy in Colombia, and sent troops to the Colombia-Venezuela border, threatening war if Colombia tries to invade Venezuela, even to attack members of the FARC or the ELN. And while Colombia has apologized to Ecuador, Ecuador says the apology is insufficient, while Colombia claims it has found evidence in the camp of the 17 FARC members that Ecuador was in contact with FARC. Suffice to say, things are, at the moment, rather tense.

I don't really know what the implications of all this will be. Certainly, the relations between Chávez and Uribe can't get much worse, and have been drastically declining since Uribe inexplicably (and, although it all worked out OK, rather indefensibly) kicked Chávez out of the delicate hostage negotiations in November). Plus, both Chávez and Uribe stand to gain from the bump in approval ratings in their respective country that such national disputes often engender (some are saying Chávez in particular could benefit given his allegedly lagging status in Venezuela, but I simply have virtually no faith in any of the polling mechanisms in Venezuela, given the extreme partisanship, pro- or anti-Chavista, that runs throughout many "non-partisan" organizations there).

But the Ecuador element is more troubling. Correa has yet to prove himself to be somebody who acts without just reason, so the fact that he has taken this this far already shows how serious he feels it to be. While national soveriegnty and the control of borders used to be sufficient enough an argument for war or a highly-charged national response in its own right, today it seems a bit differnet, given the nature of guerrilla tactics and less immediate antagonism to such border-violations (witness the lack of outcry when Turkey entered Iraq a few weeks ago to go after Kurdish PKK "terrorists"). I get the sense that many may say, "So what? So Colombia went a couple miles into Ecuador to get some "terrorists." What's the big deal?" Given the way the world has globalized not just in terms of economy, but also technologically, culturally, and even politically, the respect for national borders doesn't strike me as being as strong as it may once have been. This is in no way aided by the fact that, sometimes national territory means virtually nothing to major world powers (the U.S.'s support of Contra bases in Costa Rica and Honduras) while other times, national borders must be protected at all costs (the Malvinas War).

But territorial issues have always been sensitive in Latin America, from the independence movements to today. One simply has to look at the ongoing battle over the northern third of Chile, won in the wake of the War of the Pacific, which deprived Bolivia of its one outlet to the ocean and which Peru and Bolivia still insist belongs to them even today, over 120 years after the war itself. Wars of this type were not uncommon in Latin America, having affected the territorial control of Bolivia, Paraguay, and even Ecuador itself, which lost land to Peru in a war in 1945, and over which eruptions flared again in 1995. One can see how Colombia's invasion of Ecuador's border could be more than a little upsetting to Ecuador.I think Colombia's charges that Ecuador was in contact with the FARC are a weak defense, at least until it becomes clearer to how deep these contacts ran. Colombia itself only mentioned "possible" connections betwen FARC-Ecuador, and I find it unlikely that Ecuador was really closely tied to FARC. If such contact did exist, it doesn't necessarily mean Ecuador was being overly friendly.

I'm not convinced yet this will erupt into some regional war. I think cooler heads have to prevail, though, and given Uribe's brashness in invading Ecuador, and neither Uribe nor Chávez is exactly a calm, patient, diplomatic figure. War benefits nobody here, though (save maybe for the FARC, who can use the war as a breather to regroup). There still hasn't been much said from other Latin American countries on the issue; Lula is asking his Minsiter of Foreign Relations for more information, but the president of Brazil's Câmara has already said that, if necessary, Brazil should try to use its role in the region to avoid crisis as a neutral moderator (i.e., representing neither Colombia nor Ecuador nor Venezuela). Hopefully, things will calm down. Still, war is not out of the question, and it will definitely be worth seeing how the events play out between these three countries (and the rest of the region) over the next few weeks.