Behind the Colombia-Venezuela Break

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(l. to r.): Mike Cassese / Reuters; Fernando Llano / AP

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, left, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez

It was hardly unexpected when left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez broke off diplomatic ties with neighboring Colombia on Thursday, July 22. The government of his archfoe, conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, had just accused Venezuela before the Organization of American States (OAS) of harboring Colombia's Marxist guerrillas. Chávez, as he's done in the past when he's felt provoked by Uribe, sounded the political air-raid sirens and warned Venezuelans to brace for a military attack from beyond its western border. "We would go to war with Colombia weeping," he declared in Caracas — with, by coincidence, Argentine national soccer coach and fellow leftist Diego Maradona, who was visiting, standing by his side. "But we would have to go."

Duly noted, comandante. But the real news wasn't another rupture between Venezuela and Colombia and their famously egomaniacal Presidents. It was the surprising Bogotá breach between the outgoing Uribe and his anointed successor, President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, who takes office Aug. 7. Uribe is one of the most popular Presidents in Colombia's history, thanks to his hugely successful military offensive against the vicious narco-guerrillas known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the restoration of security to much of the civil war–ravaged country. Uribe said recently that Colombia "must defend that achievement like lions" — which includes keeping the screws on Chávez, whom he's long accused of aiding the guerrillas, especially after finding alleged evidence of FARC-Caracas links in rebel computer files seized in 2008. (Chávez denies the charge, saying the files were fabricated.)

Santos, Uribe's former Defense Minister, played a large role in the government's U.S.-backed success and even supported Uribe's bid to change Colombia's constitution to let the two-term President run for a third (which the nation's high court kiboshed earlier this year). But since his landslide election last month, it's become apparent that Santos, more even-tempered than the surly Uribe, hopes to patch things up with Venezuela. Economics is a big reason: the countries had record bilateral trade last year of $7 billion, most of it Colombian exports. But this year that flow is expected to plunge to less than $2 billion, owing largely to a boycott of many Colombian goods that Chávez ordered last year after Uribe agreed to let the U.S. use several of his nation's military bases.

Even so, Santos' pragmatic diplomacy has incensed Uribe, who has called it "babosa" (idiotic). Most Colombian political observers say Uribe is furious about having to relinquish the presidency. And with just two weeks to go in his term, Uribe and his government hard-liners are "showing signs of a nervous breakdown," Daniel Coronell, a columnist for the weekly newsmagazine Semana, wrote this week. "The incoming President ... is no longer deemed sufficiently Uribista." Hence Thursday's action at the OAS meeting in Washington. The FARC has been crossing into Venezuela since well before Chávez came to power in 1999, but Uribe's OAS ambassador presented maps, photos, videos and eyewitness testimony indicating numerous guerrilla camps across the border that Colombia insists Chávez is coddling. "We have the right to demand that Venezuela not hide those wanted by Colombia," said the ambassador, Luis Alfonso Hoyos. Chávez's ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez, called it an "à la carte menu of false accusations."

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