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Beyond the handshakes
Henry Mance
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Some worry that accord that ended Andean crisis was too hasty to last.

The diplomatic crisis that had threatened Andean economic and political stability was resolved on March 7 with a theatrical reconciliation of the presidents of Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua at a summit of the Rio Group in the Dominican Republic. However, it is unclear whether the settlement will lead to political progress in the region.

Discord flared following a Colombian nighttime military offensive against a camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in Ecuadorian territory on March 1. A key member of the guerrillas’ ruling Secretariat — alias “Raúl Reyes” — was killed in the raid.

The violation of sovereignty led Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and later Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega to break off diplomatic relations with Colombia. The two Andean nations mobilized troops towards their borders with Colombia.

In response, Colombia presented documents allegedly found on Reyes’ laptop that the Ecuadorian government had tolerated the FARC’s presence in its territory, that the group funded Correa’s 2006 election campaign, and that Venezuela’s Chávez had financially supported the guerrillas.

“The fact that some agreements have been reached is very important,” says Luis Evelis Andrade, president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia. “But the problem of the borders isn’t just one of armed conflict, but of neglect. States should make their sovereignty real by paying attention to the people who live in border regions, rather than waiting for a violation of international law.”

At least 10 indigenous groups live in the border regions of Colombia, in which violence has heightened over the past decade as drug eradication policies and military offensives have pushed illegal armed groups from the center of the country.

“As indigenous peoples, we don’t have borders. We do have a deep commitment to peace and we watched [the diplomatic crisis] with great concern,” Andrade commented.

A new twist
Thursday’s diplomatic denouement marked a swift and unexpected turnaround. At the start of the summit, Correa had warned: “My Dominican friends, be very careful. If President Uribe thinks that there is another Raúl Reyes in Santo Domingo, he’ll come and bomb you.”

However, following various hours of negotiations, Correa, Chávez and Ortega all shook hands cordially with Uribe. “With [Colombia’s] promise not to assault a sister country again and its apology, we can move on from this most serious incident,” said Correa.

However, it remains to be seen whether the agreement leads to a reactivation of Chávez’s role in the release of hostages held by the FARC. Around 700 people are currently held by the guerrillas.

Chávez’s intervention has secured the release of six hostages after his role as an official mediator for a more general deal was revoked by Uribe last November. The Venezuelan leader responded to the death of “Raúl Reyes” by labeling him “a good revolutionary.”

“Chávez’s role is kind, but also damaging. His attitude towards the FARC, and his way of supporting them, is worrying,” says Edwin Uribe of the Bogota-based nongovernmental organization Redepaz, which advocates a peaceful solution to Colombia’s armed conflict. “It’d be interesting if he played a role as long as the rules of the game are clear to him.”

According to Edwin Uribe, “The relationship Chávez has with the FARC is one that no other state has and it could make him indispensable. However, there are other states that have been strengthening their position, not just on behalf of Ingrid Betancourt, but for all the hostages. And [President] Uribe would prefer any state other than Chávez [as a mediator].”

Controversial approaches
Beyond the hostages, Chávez’s attitude towards the FARC — and Uribe’s (later rescinded) threat to prosecute him for genocide — have added to an already simplified discussion of violence in the region.

In this context, more sophisticated approaches to the FARC have been overshadowed, including studies by José Fernando Isaza, the rector of Bogota’s Jorge Tadeo Lozano University, which argue that the increased militarization in Colombian society has failed to reduce the lack of economic opportunities on which guerrilla recruitment is based.

“At the beginning of January, the freed hostages were the only thing that was happening in Colombia. In February, the only problem was the FARC,” says Edwin Uribe, referring to the media’s recent focuses. “Many serious problems like drug-trafficking and guerrilla recruitment are being made invisible by daily events.”

Indeed, the ongoing high-level diplomacy overshadowed a key attempt to counter this simplification of the conflict — the mass pro-victims demonstrations on March 6. The marches were organized by the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes to complement the unprecedented anti-FARC mobilizations of Feb. 4, in which an estimated 2 million Colombians took to the streets.

While the turnout of tens of thousands of citizens in Colombia and in up to 20 cities around the world exceeded some expectations, the march’s impact was undoubtedly lessened by the ongoing regional tension. Media support for the demonstrations was also muted, with newspapers giving priority to the diplomatic crisis and stepping back from detailed examination of victims’ stories.

More discord to come?
Some commentators have argued that the swift resolution of the diplomatic crisis will encourage further discord. Referring to the lack of hemispheric condemnation of Colombia during the crisis, Alfredo Molano, a Colombian commentator, said, “Uribe got the attack on Ecuador for a bargain price.”

For León Valencia, a former guerrilla, the problem goes to the heart of the Uribe government’s anti-FARC discourse: “A serious error has been not understanding that the countries of Latin America haven’t bought the anti-terrorist agenda.”

In contrast, Edwin Uribe is more optimistic. “The friends of war say that negotiation [between the government and the FARC] is not needed, but there’s another part of the country which is tiring of war. And that makes one think that the country is moving once again in favor of peace, as it was at the end of the 1990s.”


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