Refereeing the Colombia Standoff

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Reinaldo D'Santiago / AP

A Venezuelan soldier sits on an armored vehicle at a routine checkpoint in Las Guardias, Venezuela, 37 miles from the border with Colombia, Monday, March 3, 2008.

The escalating crisis between Colombia and its neighbors is more than just a case of Andean road rage. It exposes volatile political fault lines not seen in the Americas in a generation. On one side stand President Bush and regional allies led by conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose army is accused of invading Ecuador last weekend to kill a Marxist guerrilla boss. Against them stand Venezuela's left-wing President Hugo Chavez, whom Uribe accuses of sponsoring those rebels, and friends such as Ecuador's President Rafael Correa.

But not everyone in the region has chosen a side: Caught in the middle are the likes of Brazil's center-left President Lula da Silva, trying in vain to bridge the chasm. Right now, that appears to be an intractable diplomatic challenge — not the sort of mess you'd ever expect to be solved by the Organization of American States, long derided as one of the hemisphere's more hopelessly ineffectual institutions.

But the OAS, a sort of hemispheric United Nations, may yet surprise the doubters. On Wednesday, after four days of bellicose rhetoric from all sides and the massing of Venezuelan troops and tanks on the Colombian border, the Washington, D.C.-based body — which has, since its founding in 1948, too often been hamstrung by a domineering U.S. and Latin America's non-interventionist dogma — issued a resolution that appears to have cooled torrid temperatures in South America a few degrees. The document includes no outright condemnation of Colombia, as Correa and Chavez had demanded, but it calls Colombia's cross-border incursion a violation of international law and calls for an OAS investigative team, as requested by Correa, to visit the site of the raid — moves Uribe and the U.S. had resisted. As a result, says Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, the OAS has struck "a reasonably acceptable middle ground" that could mark a first step toward ending the emergency.

Many attribute the OAS's newfound effectiveness to its current Secretary General, former Chilean Foreign Minister Jose Miguel Insulza — a moderate socialist and veteran political operative nicknamed El Panzer for his tank-like drive. His 2005 election to a five-year term as OAS chief gained him Latin street cred, because he was the first candidate in the history of the organization elected without U.S. backing. (The U.S. eventually accepted him as Secretary General after dropping its bid to seat a more conservative Mexican nominee.) Insulza gained further credibility as an impartial broker last year when Chavez, widely regarded as the force that got Insulza elected, angrily declared him "a true idiot" and "a viceroy of the [U.S.] empire" for warning the Venezuelan leader not to encroach on a free press.

Not that Insulza still doesn't face an Andes-sized test in mediating the latest regional crisis. Colombia snubbed the OAS and instead went to the United Nations this week with its complaints against Chavez. Those include what Colombian police call solid evidence gleaned from the laptop computer of the No. 2 commander of the FARC guerrilla army — Raul Reyes, who was killed in Saturday's raid — that Chavez has funneled as much as $300 million to the rebels and should therefore be charged with financing terrorists, who Bogota alleges are also seeking uranium to make a dirty bomb. Uribe, remarkably, even asked the U.N. to charge Chavez with "genocide." The FARC, long involved in drug trafficking and ransom kidnapping, is on the State Department and European Union's lists of terrorist organizations; but FARC experts tell TIME that the group, despite its ample wherewithal, is unlikely to seek such a weapon. President Bush, meanwhile, said unequivocally this week as he lobbied Congress for a U.S.-Colombia free-trade pact, that "America will stand with Colombia."

Chavez is a long-time FARC defender — a policy that hasn't won him any global sympathy — but his government says the Colombian charges are "laughable lies." Chavez, who called Uribe a "war criminal," asserts that Colombia is the "Israel" of South America, by which he meant a nation that believes its fight against terrorists and its U.S. backing give it carte blanche to enter neighboring countries. (The type of Colombian commando unit that killed Reyes is U.S.-trained, as part of Washington's $5 billion-plus Plan Colombia aid program, ostensibly directed at curbing the drug trade.) Although many Latin capitals have grown wary of Chavez's anti-American grandstanding, it is Washington's allies in Colombia that seem isolated in the region this week.

"Colombia is one of the U.S.'s biggest [foreign policy] successes," says Phillip McLean, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "But there is a need for Colombia to see itself a bit more as others [in Latin America] see it, because it is so close to the U.S."

Though few believe Venezuela and Colombia will actually go to war, commerce has ground to a near standstill on their border, and Venezuela has shuttered its embassy in Bogota, as has Ecuador. But Correa may turn out to be a help to Insulza in this fracas. He is more measured in his responses than Chavez and Uribe, and said he was "pleased" if not completely satisfied with the OAS resolution. He and Chavez still hope for an OAS condemnation as well as an apology and reassurance from Bogota that future raids will not occur, but Ecuador's Foreign Minister called the resolution "a triumph." What's more, while Correa may be furious with Uribe, Latin diplomats suggest the Ecuadorean leader was also put off last weekend when Chavez pre-empted him with his own tirade instead of allowing Correa to respond first — as if Chavez assumes he speaks for the rest of the continent.

Colombia, still embroiled in a four-decade-old civil war over its deep social inequalities, argues that it wouldn't have had to violate Ecuador's border if Correa, like Chavez, hadn't been harboring FARC militants in his territory. The FARC "is a drug cartel that kills civilians," Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said in a TIME interview last month. "It's like al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hizballah — where are we supposed to draw the line for our security?"

Says Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo, himself a FARC hostage for six years before escaping in 2006, "If the FARC can constantly take refuge outside Colombia, it becomes a threat to regional stability, too."

It's no secret the FARC often hides out in Ecuador as well as Venezuela; but Correa insists his military has driven 47 guerrilla camps out of the country — and aides ask why, if Ecuador is really aiding the FARC, did Washington just extend the country's eligibility in the Andean Trade Preference Act, which requires a commitment to drug interdiction. Either way, if the hemisphere excuses the Colombian raid, it would set a precedent that "endangers any one of our countries," said Correa while meeting in Brazil with President Lula before going to Caracas Wednesday to huddle with Chavez.

Such are the passions that Insulza and the OAS are tasked with soothing. An added conundrum is the fact that before last weekend, there was some hope that the FARC, with Chavez as a mediator, might continue releasing some of its more than 700 hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors held in the Colombian jungle since 2003. That effort, which includes Ecuador and France (the most famous hostage is former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a dual Colombian-French citizen), has likely been brought to a halt by last weekend's events. This Friday, Chavez, Uribe and Correa are set to attend a summit in the Dominican Republic for the Grupo de Rio — a group of Latin American nations formed in the 1980s to help resolve the bloody Central American conflicts of that decade. Insulza and the OAS can only hope the gathering will remind this decade's adversaries of the cost of conflict in their region.

—With reporting by Stephan Kueffner/Quito, Rachel Jones/Caracas and Sibylla Brodzinsky/Bogota