Anxiety in the Andes

For several anxious days this month, the prospect of war in South America was sharp and real. Colombia’s bombing of a rebel camp in the jungles of Ecuador roiled tensions not seen for decades in the Andean region. Ecuador rushed troops to its border; Venezuela sent 10 battalions to its frontier; Nicaragua broke diplomatic relations with Colombia. Today, Colombia has apologized to Ecuador for violating its sovereignty, Venezuela has pulled back its troops and the presidents of all three countries have shaken hands. The crisis, however, is far from over.

Deft work by the Organization of American States, which reacted immediately to the cross-border raid, helped cool the ire directed at Colombia. But the region still lacks a cohesive approach to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Until it arrives at one, the potential for violence will remain at a simmer, despite the handshakes and photo-op smiles. Both Ecuador and Venezuela have prohibited Colombia from pursuing the rebels within their borders, yet neither has had the political will or the military capability to roust the FARC on its own. Stalemate.

The FARC is committed to the violent overthrow of Colombia’s duly elected government, and President Alvaro Uribe is committed to crushing the FARC. Since his election in 2002, Uribe, with the help of billions of dollars in U.S. arms and advisors, has kept the rebels on the run. He has recaptured huge swaths of territory they once controlled and pushed them farther from urban centers. And the Colombian people are now squarely behind their government; millions have taken to the streets in anti-FARC marches, and Uribe enjoys huge approval ratings. The flaw in his plan to marginalize the FARC is that Colombia’s borders with Venezuela and Ecuador are so porous.


Ultimately, no matter how much U.S. military aid it receives, Colombia will not be able to defeat the rebels with force alone. The lesson from its incursion into Ecuador is clear: It needs its neighbors. This is where OAS leadership should play a major role. Ecuador has proposed that an OAS force or U.N. troops be deployed to monitor its border with Colombia, and Uribe said he would consider such a plan. Venezuela is a more difficult proposition, as President Hugo Chavez not only sympathizes with the FARC but may be funding it. His meddling should not be allowed to derail this important move toward regional stability.

As for the United States, its role in these negotiations should be behind the scenes, minimal or maybe even nonexistent. Because the U.S. arms Colombia, many in the region perceived the raid into Ecuador as a joint strike, a de facto declaration of war by Uribe and President Bush. The U.S. enjoys so little trust and respect in South America that it cannot position itself as a mediator. Indeed, it may be too late for the Bush administration to improve U.S. relations in the region. But it is not too late to make matters even worse.

Trying to turn the recent crisis to its advantage in a game of executive one-upmanship with Chavez, the administration has let it be known that it’s mulling whether to add Venezuela to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Although this is unlikely -- Venezuela, the fourth largest exporter of oil to the U.S., would likely retaliate at the gas pump -- the swaggering rhetoric pointlessly impedes diplomacy. Bush is also maintaining that the crisis gives new urgency to congressional approval of a trade pact with Colombia. If it is not approved as soon as possible, he posits, anti-American sentiment will skyrocket.

Support for Colombia’s struggle against the FARC is entirely appropriate, and we hope the humanitarian and labor issues holding up approval of the trade pact will soon be worked out. Bush’s bluster only works against those aims, and is a reminder that quiet diplomacy often yields greater results.