At a meeting of the Rio Group in February, a Group of Friends led by Dominican President Leonel Fernandez offered to mediate the conflict between two neighbors. Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez accepted. When Colombia's constitutional court banned Uribe from seeking a third consecutive term, however, Venezuela postponed any improvement in relations until Uribe's successor took office.
Chavez issued a warning: A vote for Juan Manuel Santos — the former defense minister responsible for the March 2008 raid on the FARC camp in Ecuador and the Partido de la U's presidential candidate — would damn the relationship and could even lead to war.
On May 30, Colombians go to the polls in what will almost certainly be the first round in electing their next president. At first, Santos looked to be Uribe's inevitable successor. While unpopular in some quarters abroad, at home he benefited from the Ecuador raid and the spectacular rescue of 15 FARC hostages a few months later. March congressional elections augured well for Santos: His Partido de la U was the top vote-getter and, together, Uribista parties controlled congress. A first-round victory in the presidential race seemed possible.
No more. In mid-April, Antanas Mockus — Green Party candidate and twice a successful mayor of Bogota —received almost 25-percent support, less than 5 percentage points behind Santos. Three months ago he had barely registered 3 percent. Mockus now bests Santos though has been losing some ground recently but not enough to prevent a runoff. On June 20, the Green candidate is well positioned to beat the Uribista hands down.
Whoever wins, Colombia will have passed a milestone. Uribe will go home, leaving either Santos or Mockus a country where violence no longer reigns supreme. If Santos loses, his own shortcomings and a badly managed campaign will shoulder the blame. Should he win, Santos will have to uphold the Uribista security legacy while bolstering democratic institutions and citizen rights that suffered under Uribe.
A Mockus victory would not only be another expression of voter discontent with traditional politicians — a contagion that is making the rounds everywhere — but also a tribute to Uribe's success. His policy of democratic security is the unchallenged template of Colombian politics. If Mockus had expressed the slightest hesitation regarding the FARC, he would not be the leading candidate today.
All the same, Bogota is not Colombia, and the Green Party has only five senators. How he might govern with an Uribista-controlled congress is an open question. If Mockus loses, it would be due to his inexperience at the national level and the wariness felt by Colombians of handing over the reins to the Green candidate.
Chavez's troubles with Colombia stem from the FARC. In March, a Spanish judge opened an investigation into Venezuela's alleged links with the FARC and ETA, the Basque terrorist group. More recently, Gen. Douglas Fraser — head of the U.S. Southern Command — noted that financial and logistical ties between the FARC and Venezuela are longstanding. The general added: "My understanding is that that continues."
At home, Chavez's model — oil windfall earnings, public spending and his popularity — is in trouble. His pathological mismanagement has run the economy into the ground. Inflation is battering wages and gross domestic product contracting. Crime is rampant, and poor Venezuelans bear most of its brunt. Social programs alone no longer sway the Chavista base. Chavez's popularity is at its lowest level since 2003.
On Sept. 26, Venezuelans will elect a new National Assembly. In 2005, the opposition abstained and handed Chavez complete legislative control. Whatever the outcome, this time Chavez will have to contend with a politically diverse legislature. Chavista directives are to win two-thirds of the deputies. Even if the opposition only wins a third, Chavez governs with an all-or-nothing mentality. His own ranks are now riven by division and dissent.
Venezuela is not Cuba, where public opinion doesn't matter. Chavez has been working hard to make Venezuela into another Cuba against the wishes of Venezuelans. If the citizenry gives the opposition a larger share of the National Assembly than expected, Chavez would be unlikely to mend relations with Colombia.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Marifeli Pérez-Stable is a professor at Florida International University and senior non-resident fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.