An Embarrassing War of Words Among Neighbors

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By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 7, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- While Ecuadorian troops were positioning themselves this week at the border with Colombia, and hours after Ecuador's President Rafael Correa severed relations with that country, a diplomatic war of words between the two neighbors began here at the Organization of American States.

On Tuesday, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador launched the first sortie, accusing Colombia of violating Ecuador's sovereignty and ignoring five articles of the OAS Charter when it attacked a guerrilla base inside Ecuador last Saturday. Unsatisfied with public apologies from officials in Bogota, Salvador pressed for regional condemnation of Colombia.

Camilo Ospina, Colombia's permanent representative to the OAS, returned the fire with his own list of international anti-terrorism obligations purportedly violated by Ecuador. Ospina accused Ecuador of showing more sympathy for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) than for the plight of Colombians.

That this has become a crisis of such war-threatening magnitude -- Venezuela has also dispatched troops to its border with Colombia -- seems, to put it mildly, unnecessary. It was barely a month ago that world opinion seemed united against the FARC. Millions of people in more than 100 cities worldwide marched to express their opposition to the FARC and its history of murder, kidnapping and deceit.

Then Saturday morning, Colombian security forces bombarded a FARC camp one mile into Ecuadorian territory after the guerrillas allegedly fired on the Colombians and killed one soldier. While there have been other occasions when Colombian forces fired into neighboring territory in response too FARC attacks, this one hit the news big time because Raul Reyes, the second most important FARC commander, was killed.

That morning Correa interrupted his radio address to receive a call from Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. When he returned to the microphone, Correa lamented the loss of life and offered to help bring an end to Colombia's internal conflict.

Hours later, Correa's tone had radically changed. By Saturday evening, Correa had recalled his ambassador in Bogota and accused Uribe of lying about the incident. By Monday, Ecuadorian troops began arriving at the border.

Even before the OAS encounter ended Wednesday with Colombia admitting its trespasses once again but without receiving regional condemnation, it seemed that this crisis was shaping up as an embarrassment that Ecuador could have avoided. First of all, it put Ecuador on the wrong side of the FARC issue. Instead of being outraged by the continued violation of its sovereignty by the guerrillas, Ecuador was using the OAS and the United Nations to take to task a neighbor with which it has a significant trade relation and a history of "fraternal love" -- to use Correa's words.

The sequence of events further revealed Ecuador's deference to and dependence on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who condemned Colombia's action before Correa did and mobilized his own troops on Sunday. Many observers believe that it took a call from Chavez for Correa to turn more aggressive toward Uribe.

The crisis also says a lot about Ecuador's strategy in dealing with the FARC. Colombian officials claim they recovered Reyes' computer and on it, two letters detailing recent meetings with Correa's security minister, Gustavo Larrea, in which Larrea apparently offered to replace Ecuadorian military leaders hostile to the FARC and asked the guerrillas to train locals on organizacion de masas (mass mobilization).

Ecuador disputes the authenticity of these letters and the other purported evidence that would concretely link Correa, Chavez and the FARC for their own political gain. Ecuador does not, however, dispute the meetings themselves and argues that they were motivated by humanitarian concerns. Before Reyes was killed, Ecuadoran officials say they were about to secure the release of more FARC-held hostages.

It is true that all of Colombia's neighbors have been forced to deal with the FARC one way or another because of its incursions into their territories. Perhaps this incident will serve to clarify that striking a Faustian bargain with the FARC is no longer tenable. It is naive to believe that as long as the FARC does not spread violence in Ecuador, the rebels will have no detrimental impact there.

Just ask Colombians what the social, political and economic toll has been from an organization that traffics in millions of dollars of drugs and weapons for a cause that has lost any political justification. That is why Colombians have said "no mas" (no more) to the FARC, and why more than 80 percent support Uribe and the strike on Reyes' camp.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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