Opinion

Commentary: Venezuela's fallout with Colombia is nothing new

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Journalists are not supposed to shoot down a good story, but I have to confess that I'm not terribly excited about the news of Venezuela's break of diplomatic relations with Colombia, nor about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's threat to stop oil exports to the United States.

Despite the big headlines about Latin America's latest conflict, senior Latin American and U.S. diplomats tell me that the spat between Chavez and outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is likely to subside -- at least for a while -- once Colombia's President-elect Juan Manuel Santos takes office on Aug. 7.

The latest Venezuela-Colombia diplomatic clash started last week, when the Colombian government convened a session of the 34-country Organization of American States to present videos, photos and maps to accuse the Venezuelan government of harboring 1,500 Colombian guerrillas in Venezuelan territory and to demand a regional investigation of the case.

Chavez, in what critics said was a move to divert attention from the presence of Colombian guerrillas in his country, broke diplomatic ties with Colombia, and claimed the United States and Colombia are creating excuses to invade Venezuela.

He also threatened to cut off Venezuela's oil exports to the United States, which account for most of his country's foreign income, if there is armed aggression against Venezuela from Colombia or anywhere else supported by the United States.

Why did Uribe make his high-risk move before the OAS only two weeks before leaving office? There are two theories: that he did it to tie his successor's hands and force him to maintain Colombia's hard-line security policies, or that he did it as part of a secret agreement with Santos to spare him from having to clash with Chavez from the very start of his presidency.

The British weekly The Economist and many other mainstream media subscribe to the first theory. "Uribe tries to undermine his successor's tentative reconciliation with Venezuela's government," a headline in the magazine said.

While Santos served as Uribe's defense minister and carried out Colombia's most daring anti-guerrilla operations, including the attack on Colombian FARC guerrilla camps in Ecuador in 2008, there is a widespread belief in Colombia's political circles that the two men have recently grown apart.

Uribe, who still enjoys high popularity rates in Colombia, played until the last moment with the idea of running for a third term, and did not pick Santos as his first choice for his party's candidacy when the courts ruled that a third term would be unconstitutional.

After Santos won the election with an unprecedented 69 percent of the vote, the president-elect felt politically strong enough to announce the appointment of ministers of foreign relations and agriculture who are known not to be of Uribe's liking, well-placed Colombians say.

According to the second theory, the outgoing government is doing the dirty work for Santos before the president-elect takes over.

But most foreign diplomats agree that Santos will find a way to defuse the crisis once he takes office, even if Venezuela continues refusing to allow an international investigation into the Colombian guerrilla camps.

Both countries are heavily dependent on each other economically: Venezuela is suffering from growing food shortages because of its disastrous economic policies, and Colombia badly needs to maintain its food exports to Venezuela, they say.

"There are motivations for both sides to settle this," says a senior U.S. State Department official. "There is a symbiotic economic relationship between the two countries."

My opinion: This latest diplomatic crisis will pass, if only to resurface sometime in the near future.

In 2008, Chavez threatened to go to war with Colombia after the Colombian incursion into guerrilla camps in Ecuador, and in 2009 Venezuela "froze" diplomatic and commercial relations with Colombia after Uribe allowed U.S. access to seven Colombian military bases.

Since then, bilateral trade has fallen by more than 70 percent.

Once Santos takes office, there will be a truce. But the honeymoon is not likely to last. Santos will not sit idly by while Chavez tolerates Colombian guerrilla camps in his territory, and Chavez will need to continue portraying himself as the victim of an alleged U.S.-Colombian conspiracy to justify his increasingly anti-democratic measures at home.

It's a movie we've seen many times before.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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