Colombia takes a leaf out of Israel's military handbook infuriating its neighbours in the process, writes Gamal Nkrumah
He was caught on the wrong side of the river. Luis Edgar Devia Silva, better known by his nome de guerre Raul Reyes, was assassinated in the densely-forested jungle area around the Putumayo River 10 km deep into Ecuadorian territory on 1 March. To his admirers, Reyes fell in precisely the same way Che Guevara was felled.
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Venezuelan military ride on an armoured vehicle on their way to the Colombian border
Be that as it may, Colombian President Alvares Uribe enjoys the wholehearted support of Colombia's economic elite. The Colombian troops killed Reyes and 16 other guerrillas with the full blessings of the powers that be in both the Colombian capital Bogota and the United States.
Reyes, a seasoned Marxist activist who joined the country's trade union movement while working for a milk plant of the Swiss multinational Nestle in rural Columbia, was second in command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Chavez called Reyes "a true and good revolutionary". He sensed his people's frustration at the poor hand life has dealt them and he fought to change their world for the better. For Reyes, every voice in Colombia had to be empowered -- the poorest of the poor as much as the rich and powerful. Not everyone plying the corridors of power in Bogota agreed with the details of this thesis, though.
The endgame is far from clear. Nor will things be simple after Reyes' demise. Reyes was earmarked to succeed the 77-year- old Manuel Marulanda as FARC leader. FARC does not draw its main strength from Reyes, nor from Marulanda for that matter. He was one of seven members of FARC's secretariat. FARC plays on widespread complaints in Colombia that the US-backed Uribe government has failed to provide for the poor and serves primarily the powerful and privileged. But, with one of the fastest growth rates in South America, Colombia flaunts the predictable trappings of a capitalist country, and even though its achievements have not gone unnoticed, none of its neighbours has attempted to ape its success.
The Colombians insist that Reyes was killed in combat. "There is no justification," retorts Ecuadorian President Correa. The assassination of Reyes adds extra aggravation and is part of something worse: to contain the leftist landslide in South America. Ecuador's ambassador to Colombia was promptly recalled. Venezuela followed suit. Relations between the two neighbours have reached an all-time low.
There are many in Colombia who strongly believe that their government is under no obligation to justify the incursion that resulted in the assassination of the FARC number two man. Ironically, this gesture of Colombian self-confidence and goodwill comes at a time of fierce debate over the policies that made it so unpopular with its neighbours.
Uribe boasted that FARC "can be crushed militarily". That got the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan authorities riled. They had been working hard to free hostages held by FARC, and now the Colombian military action abrogated all their efforts.
Chavez called Columbia "South America's Israel", a dubious accolade that went down splendidly in the Arab world. On a recent official visit to Israel, Colombia's Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos applauded his country's longstanding bilateral military ties with Israel alluding to Colombia's arms shipment to Israel in defiance of the international embargo against Israel in its early days. "In recent years the situation has come full circle," cooed Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Israel is also training Colombia's right-wing death squads. Amnesty International called on the US to freeze US military assistance to Colombia.
Chavez also described the assassination of Reyes as a "cold- blooded murder". In the surprise cross-border attack, Colombian government forces not only discounted Ecuadorian territorial integrity and sovereignty, but also poured scorn on the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian attempts to end the 60-year- old civil war between FARC and successive Colombian government. This is no publicity stunt. The Colombian troops also seized three laptops with what the Colombian authorities described as a "treasure trove of information" and "ample proof of ties between armed opposition groups and the Ecuadorian government."
Is the region now set for a collision course? The window for a negotiated way out of the impasse over Colombia's struggle to crush FARC will not remain open indefinitely. The regional nemesis for Bush is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Yet, there is no denial that there is a coterie of South American democratically elected leaders that are no less ardent in their abhorrence of what they view as United States imperialism and they include many of Colombia's neighbours, including Ecuador. Small wonder then that pro-US Colombia is by far the largest recipient of US military assistance in the continent -- the country receives $600 million annually in US military assistance. Ecuador's president, too, wants to see a negotiated settlement between the Colombian government and FARC.
In an effort to break the impasse, Venezuelan President Chavez has laboured hard to secure the release of hostages held by FARC. He may not expect his Uribe- bashing to be acted upon, but there is no scepticism of the intent behind Chavez's rhetorical fire.
Reactions to the Venezuelan president's anti-Uribe harangues in Bogota have been surprisingly mute. Colombia officially apologised to the Ecuadorian government, but stopped short of denouncing the raid that ended the political career of Reyes, who was FARC's acting foreign minister. Bogota believes it was an unprecedented achievement, one that would go down in the annals of history as a turning point in the fight against FARC.
Colombia's neighbours, though, do not see matters from Bogota's warped perspective. Venezuela offered to mediate between the Uribe government and FARC for the release of hostages and to end the civil war. Chavez has made much political capital from releasing hostages held by FARC. Colombia now appears to have spurned that offer.
"The incident must be clarified," Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa thundered. Ecuador promptly expelled the Colombian ambassador in Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, pointing out that the assassination of Reyes on Ecuadorian soil blatantly contravenes international law. Furthermore, the Ecuadorian authorities warned that if every South American country disregarded international boundaries in the hot pursuit of armed opposition groups, all hell will be let loose. Colombia countered that evidence points to conclusive links between FARC and both Ecuador and Venezuela.
We are looking at an abyss of uncertainty in the northwestern corner of South America. The elixir of corporate life will only be truly felt in Colombia if the FARC are incorporated into the Colombian political establishment -- as Chavez contends, or if as Uribe would have it the threat they pose is contained.
The truth will out sooner than later, and perhaps the South Americans can learn a lesson or two from Africa, after all. Take Kenya and the gargantuan efforts of the former United Nations secretary-general and his negotiating team to resolve the political crisis in Kenya. This week, they succeeded.
On the surface, all of these stirrings in South America appear like useless dissipations of energy, yet mediating worked in Kenya. The meetings' most notable accomplishment was that a peace deal was clinched, that they did not collapse as previous gatherings had done in Kenya. In such instances, there is usually a much-vaunted package of goodies for those who cooperate, which didn't happen in the Kenyan case. But even without any goodies, the point is that it is a win-win situation for both sides in such conflicts. As Kofi Annan left Kenya, there was not much to show for all his efforts except a tentative peace and a subsiding of violence. But that in itself is not to be scoffed at.
Unlike the Kenyan crisis, the dispute between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela is a regional one. And, it revolves around a deep-rooted ideological wrangle. In Columbia's case, there are no "goodies" except the $600 million in military assistance which is in fact the US using Columbia as a proxy to "fight communism". However, the win-win argument works in spades here, as this potentially wealthy and vast region would blossom, given an end to the interminable warring.
South American officials, on the other hand, have done their best to lower expectations about what might be achieved through negotiations, and it was just as well. Colombia's neighbours, in spite of amassing troops on the borders of Colombia, believe a deal to end the 60-year-old internal conflict in Colombia is possible only if Uribe stops playing his American card.
"This is the time for dialogue reconciliation," Venezuela's Ambassador to Egypt Victor Carazo told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Peaceful dialogue is the only way forward. The solution should include humanitarian exchange of hostages," Carazo added. "Indeed Chavez has urged FARC to stop the violent methods, otherwise the fighting is only going to escalate."