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Colombia-Venezuela dispute unresolved in meeting of South American leaders

By Juan Forero
Saturday, July 31, 2010; A08

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- After the posturing and hysterics, an emergency meeting and competing press briefings, South American leaders were unable to resolve a crisis that began when the Colombian government accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of aiding and abetting Colombian guerrillas.

"A package of lies and manipulations with which to attack our country," Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said after diplomats from across the continent gathered in Ecuador on Thursday.

Their inability to find common ground between Colombia, a close U.S. ally, and Chávez's socialist administration leaves relations between the two Andean neighbors in tatters in the waning days of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's eight-year presidency.

The challenge for incoming president Juan Manuel Santos, as he prepares for his Aug. 7 inauguration, is to repair Colombia's ties to a leader suspicious of its motivations and links to Washington while somehow prodding Venezuela to reverse what Colombian authorities consider wholehearted support for two rebel groups.

As defense minister for three years until 2009, Santos engineered decisive blows against the most potent of the two rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and his office released reams of documents that showed close links between rebel commanders and Chávez's closest associates.

But since his election in May, Santos has stressed the need to patch up relations with Chávez, who last year cut commercial ties in a dispute over the U.S. military's presence in Colombia.

"In any case, Santos, more than any Colombian, has no illusions about the FARC presence outside of his country's borders, and he cannot afford to ignore this issue, especially if he wants ending the armed conflict to be his legacy as president," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group.

Many governments in South America, even those friendly to Uribe, consider the conflict in Colombia to be Bogota's problem, not theirs, even though FARC rebels frequently cross frontiers and have been linked to radical groups in Chile and Paraguay. Colombian diplomats, who have briefed regional leaders about FARC activities, privately say that response is discouraging.

"Countries that are affected by terrorism tend to be a bit isolated because those who are not suffering from it in the end do not care too much," said a former senior official in the Uribe administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the topic. "To a large extent, that's what we saw in these meetings" with other Latin American diplomats.

Support for terrorists?

At the heart of the matter is an issue that Colombians consider of paramount importance: whether Chávez's government provides sanctuary, rifles, ammunition and tactical support to Colombian rebel groups, as Uribe's government claims. Colombian officials have long contended that the guerrillas use the alleged assistance to cross into Colombia and attack armed forces and civilians.

"The issue is serious -- is a nation state supporting a terrorist group or isn't it?" said Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy for the Council of the Americas, a New York-based organization that tracks politics in Latin America. "That deserves more attention, more seriousness, than one president losing his cool and a group of presidents posturing over it."

The latest spat with Venezuela began when Uribe authorized his defense minister to hold a news conference, in which it was announced that Colombia had irrefutable evidence of Venezuela's support for the rebels. At a special session of the Organization of American States in Washington on July 22, Colombia's ambassador to that body, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, presented videos, photographs and maps that he said showed the presence of 1,500 rebels in dozens of camps inside Venezuela.

The accusations prompted Chávez, a firebrand populist who has frequently lauded Colombia's rebels, to accuse Colombia of fabricating the evidence as a pretext to invade. He also charged that the Obama administration, a close ally of Uribe's, was behind the machinations.

Chávez severed diplomatic relations with Colombia on July 22 and warned that the probability of war with Colombia was higher than it had been in "many years, I'd say 100 years." On Friday, he said he had deployed infantry and air force units, although he did not offer specifics.

Questionable timing

The timing of Uribe's latest accusations raised questions among some observers, who noted that the Colombian government has for two years been providing evidence of rebel ties to Chávez's government.

Santos, in a break with Uribe, had invited Chávez to his inauguration and authorized Maria Angela Holguin, who will be his foreign minister, to meet with her Venezuelan counterpart, Maduro.

"It looked like rapprochement was in the works," said Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America policy group, who specializes in the Colombian conflict. "It seemed clear that Uribe was sending a message to the president-elect as much as he was sending a message to Chávez."

Political analysts say one clear winner could be Chávez, whose popularity has slipped in recent months in the face of a grinding recession, rampant crime, food shortages and the region's highest inflation rate. Venezuela holds congressional elections in September, and Chávez's opponents hope to win back seats in a body that is almost completely controlled by his allies.

By focusing the country's attention on the crisis -- and the prospect of war -- Chávez has been able to divert attention from the social and economic problems his government has been unable to address, said Sabatini of the Council of the Americas.

"It's a page from his usual playbook, of trying to stoke nationalistic fervor and distract from his own country's ills," Sabatini said.

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