Heightened political tensions between Colombia and Venezuela over Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's decision on November 21 to cancel the mediating role of his Venezuelan counterpart, President Hugo Chavez, in negotiations for the release of 45 high-profile hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), signifies more than just a war of words between two presidents, but a clash between the Latin American left and the right-wing aligned with US imperialism.
As many commentators have noted, the US is increasingly losing control of its own "backyard" as the growth of left-wing anti-imperialist governments and movements across Latin America in recent years, spearheaded by the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, is challenging neoliberal capitalism and US domination.
In this context Uribe's surprise invitation to Chavez on August 31 to mediate hostage negotiations with the FARC alongside Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, with the potential for broader peace talks, must have come as a rude shock to the US ruling class, who certainly have an interest in maintaining tensions in the region. Specifically, the US wants to maintain military bases in Colombia as a counterweight to the growing influence of Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution.
Uribe, however, faces a crisis as his government is increasingly becoming engulfed in a "para-politics" scandal that connects many of his political supporters and family members to right-wing, drug-trafficking, paramilitary death squads (in 1991 Uribe himself appeared on the US State Department's list of the top 100 drug traffickers). It appears he made the move in order to gain some much needed political credibility, without consulting his US backers.
Uribe has been backpedaling ever since, as the US, which supplies Colombia with US$600 million each year in military aid for its "war on drugs", has consistently poured cold water on the idea of negotiating with "terrorists" (as it labels the FARC, which is also accused of drug trafficking).
Similarly Colombian elites, worried about the process of radical social change in neighbouring Venezuela inspiring similar movements for change in Colombia, also attacked the negotiations. Alfredo Rangel noted in Colombian business magazine Cambio, "Peace in Colombia will advance [Chavez's] ideas, and that would threaten our institutional stability and conservative political culture."
Consequently, Uribe repeatedly placed obstacles in the path of the negotiations; refusing to allow a demilitarised zone to facilitate the exchange of hostages, ruling out the possibility of including two FARC leaders imprisoned in the US as part of the hostage exchange and refusing to allow a meeting between Chavez and the FARC on Colombian soil while at the same time denying safe passage for representatives of the FARC to travel to Caracas.
Then on November 21, citing a 30 second telephone conversation between Chavez and Colombian General Mario Montoya as a "violation" of Colombian sovereignty, Uribe terminated the mediation of Chavez and Cordoba only hours after US ambassador William Brownfield slammed the negotiations for failing to achieve the release of the hostages in three months — something the Colombian government has failed to achieve in 10 years.
Speaking on Venezuelan political commentary program, The Razorblade on November 24 Chavez responded saying the Colombian government used a "silly thing as an excuse" to terminate the mediation.
"They have spat brutally in our face when we worked heart and soul to try to get them on the road to peace", Chavez added.
"We made efforts, but I believe that the government of Colombia does not want peace. Now I am convinced by the kick that they gave the [negotiating] table to avoid peace."
Uribe then attacked Chavez again, accusing him of aiming to install a "terrorist FARC government", in Colombia. Particularly chilling is the confirmation that Cordoba, herself handpicked by Uribe to lead the negotiations, has now been placed under investigation by the Supreme Court, for crimes of "treason against the homeland" for her role in the negotiations.
Cordoba, who is required to present a full account to the Colombian Senate about the efforts to achieve a humanitarian exchange, said she has nothing to hide. The senator, who has received death threats, requested that the Senate hold an open session so the whole country could hear the full details.
In contrast with the response from Washington, which applauded the decision, Uribe has sparked widespread criticism at home and abroad, particularly from the families of the hostages.
Relatives of the hostages have staged protests against Uribe in Bogota and are calling for the reinstatement of Chavez as a mediator. The main opposition party Polo Democratico, the National Council for Peace, the Commission for Peace in the Colombian Congress and a number of other high-profile political figures have also criticized Uribe's decision.
Fabrice Delloye, ex-husband of French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt, held by the FARC since 2002, said, "What outrages me about Uribe is his permanent hypocrisy. He never stopped putting obstacles in the way of previous efforts."
French government spokesperson David Martinon told reporters in Paris, "We still think President Chavez is the best chance for freeing Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages."
Venezuela has "put relations with Colombia in the freezer", and recalled its ambassador, Pavel Rondon, from Bogota to carry out an "exhaustive evaluation of bilateral relations", and has ruled out returning to the Andean Community of Nations, which it left last year in protest at Peru and Colombia's decision to sign bilateral "free trade" agreements with the US.
A successful mediation for a humanitarian exchange would have significantly boosted Chavez's popularity across Latin America and would have been a disaster for US imperialism, which has been leading a campaign to isolate Venezuela internationally.
The diplomatic stand-off also puts added pressure on Chavez in the lead up to the constitutional reform referendum on December 2 — aimed at deepening the Venezuelan revolution towards socialism — the outcome of which will have ramifications for the relationship of forces between the forces of the oppressed and those of the elite across Latin America.