Venezuela’s decision to re-establish diplomatic, political and economic relations with Colombia on August 10 was only possible thanks to a range of circumstances and actions.
Venezuela cut ties on July 22 in the face of allegations made by Colombia at the Organisation of American States (OAS) of alleged Venezuelan support for left-wing Colombian guerrillas. The Venezuelan government said the allegations were part of an attempt, backed by the US, to spark a war between the two nations.
The enthusiasm for the re-establishment of ties, much more palpable in Caracas than in Bogota, reflects a series of coordinated reactions that dragged the new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos into signing an agreement with Venezuela and forced Washington to redesign its strategy against the Latin American revolution.
To understand the scale of the agreement reached between both countries it is important to realise it was preceded by a real threat of war. The decision by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Santos to “turn the page” was a huge step forward.
But it doesn’t mean the tensions have disappeared. Colombian foreign minister Maria Angela Holguin said: “Santos and Chavez spoke frankly of their differences, but what is at stake now is forging a bilateral relationship based on respect.”
The role of Colombia as a trampoline for imperialism continues.
The timidity with which the US greeted the agreement between Caracas and Bogota (“we hope this is positive”, said US secretary of state Hillary Clinton) contrasted sharply with Washington’s vehemence when it greeted the “solid” and “very serious” evidence that Colombia presented against Chavez.
It contrasted with Washington’s criticism of the “unfortunate and insolent” decision by Venezuela to break off relations.
The US continues to operate military bases in Colombia, as a result of an agreement deemed unconstitutional by a Colombian court. And the bases will stay.
Santos asked that the past not be dwelled upon, but Chavez demanded Bogota guarantee that US military actions in Colombia won’t pose a risk to neighbouring countries.
Colombia’s reaction to the role played by the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) — which involves all South American nations in reuniting the two countries was also important.
Chavez praised Unasur, but Santos said that its role in this crisis did not exclude other groups. This was a clear reference to the OAS, in which Washington still pulls the strings.
In Colombia, the fierce dispute between different sectors of the right over positions of power in the new government has come to the fore.
The car bomb that exploded in Bogota on August 12, just five days after Santos was sworn in, was revealing. All of a sudden, the secure and solid Bogota that former president Alvaro Uribe left behind had become penetrable.
If Santos attributed the attack to the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), he would have to break off any attempt to reach out to the guerrillas (a possibility left open by Santos when he assumed power).
If the bombing came from the extreme right — as authorities later admitted — the head of state was served notice that his first moves had upset his allies.
Three days after the bombing, Santos admitted it was still unclear who was behind the crime. But he had already shut the door on the FARC “until they abandon terrorism”.
What we are dealing with, he said, “is a dying dog that seeks to re-establish terror in Colombia”.
The new president had already begun to backflip.
Someone had to stop the war danger between Venezuela and Colombia. That “someone” was a strategy drawn up between Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina.
Faced with the threat of war, Chavez responded with a firmness not expected by his enemies.
Brazilian president Lula da Silva imposed his leadership to help stop a war that would have affected Brazil.
And former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner — the Unasur secretary general — ensured the plan was carried out.
Venezuela’s response included the threat of cutting off oil supplies to the US; the preparation of the entire Bolivarian Armed Forces for conflict, including the popular militias; and the unconditional support offered from the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA — the eight-nation anti-imperialist bloc set up by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004).
Chavez insisted: “If someone carried out an armed attack on Venezuela … promoted by the Yankee empire, we would cut off the supply of oil to the US, even if we had to eat rocks.”
Such a response made it clear that a Colombian military incursion into Venezuelan territory would unleash a war with unforeseeable consequences.
With solid internal support and the backing of the ALBA countries, Chavez knew Unasur would be the key body to carry out an attempted rapprochement.
Chavez requested a meeting of Unasur foreign ministers at the same time as he broke off relations with Colombia, “so that Unasur can launch a South American response to this aggression”.
A week later, Uribe’s discontent with this step was expressed in statements by then Colombian foreign minister Jaime Bermudez at the Unasur meeting in Quito on July 29. Bermudez expressed cynicism about the body and its chances of resolving the conflict
Colombia sought to feed off Unasur’s internal weaknesses. Unasur faced this regional crisis in very bad shape.
The decision more than a year ago by Argentina and Brazil to join the G20 without consulting or informing the ten other Unasur countries was a real blow. New divisions were opened by Colombia and Peru’s recognition of the Honduran coup regime that overthrew elected president Manuel Zelaya.
The August 10 meeting between Chavez and Santos in the Colombian city of Santa Marta was preceded by the failure of the foreign ministers’ meeting in Quito.
The lack of agreements and common visions forced the ministers to seek help from regional presidents.
It is also true it took Kirchner a few days to get ready for work. He did so only after Chavez and Lula took in the scale of the crisis, and used direct and official means to get this across, as well as gestures such as when Lula paused in his speech at the Market of the South (Mercosur) Summit in San Juan, looked up, and asked where Kirchner was.
“I don’t see him, he must be in a bilateral meeting”, he said, before returning to his speech. Later in the speech, he commented on Kirchner’s tendency to leave summits early and pointedly said he could no longer take this attitude as Unasur secretary general.
That is why the role of Kirchner as mediator cannot be understood outside the framework of Brazil and Venezuela.
If Lula was crucial to this story, why push Kirchner to mediate rather than himself? There is only one possible answer: because this was about defending and strengthening Unasur, as the Venezuelan government had attempted to do from the start.
Unasur needed to come out of this with fresh momentum. A wrong step could shatter the regional structure.
Personalising the mediation in someone of Lula’s stature would have been the equivalent of burying Unasur. And a failure in the face of such a big offence could only have been read as the crumbling of the integration process.
Now we can see imperialism’s plans more clearly: Uribe was to trigger the war in his last days in office, destabilising Chavez a month out from the crucial September 26 legislative elections, weakening ALBA’s solid spirit and delegitimising the good intentions of Unasur.
Santos would assume government and restore peace; a peace based on a scorched earth policy.
Uribe’s government did not just reject Unasur; it also worked from within to discredit it.
Colombia never informed the regional body of the character of the US bases in its territory. And it did not contribute anything constructive when Unasur responded to the coup attempt against Bolivian President Evo Morales in 2008.
Santos thanked the South American bloc for helping to re-establish relations with Venezuela, but said “common problems should be resolved between the two parties”.
Afterwards, he said: “Unasur is not exclusionary. It doesn’t mean that there are no other mechanisms to consult when dealing with our issues.”
Chavez’s weekly column, published as Santos was assuming the presidency, dealt with Venezuela’s strategy: “The cornerstone of South American freedom has been placed. We will never again vacillate … Who knows if history will give future generations another wonderful opportunity like the one we are experiencing in our time.”
He added: “We need to defend the great building of our liberation: the South American architecture we are creating. We will not rest, not even for an instant …
“We are not frightened by Washington's threats. We are not alone … We are aware that there are no national solutions: this would be a mere illusion in the vast flood of problems affecting humankind.”
The scale of the success achieved in the Santa Marta meeting can only compare to the size of the crisis that preceded it.
The problem was twofold: halt an armed attack and revitalise Unasur, not because it was the exact expression of South America’s emancipation, but because it was the only valid instrument capable of stopping the US-Colombian plan.
The great merit of this South American manoeuvre was not having reached the signing of a peace accord with Santos, but having stopped Uribe’s war. It was a triumph of South American political independence.
The south passed the test, although the north will go on the offensive again, and sooner rather than later.