The New Dimension of the Colombian Conflict (ARI)

The New Dimension of the Colombian Conflict (ARI)

Theme: Recent verbal and diplomatic clashes between the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela and that of Colombia, and the final statement at the meeting of the Rio Group, have placed the Colombian conflict in the multilateral realm. This raises new challenges for the region.

Summary: After the string of events that followed the Colombian military incursion into Ecuadorean territory, which resulted in the death of Raul Reyes, deputy commander of the Colombian rebel group FARC, there has been a substantial change in the international dimension of the Colombian conflict. Ecuador and Venezuela are practically forced to revise their positions on the conflict and in particular towards the FARC, which is regarded as a terrorist group.

Colombia’s military action revealed the magnitude of the FARC’s presence outside the country’s borders, and in doing so upset the framework that made this a domestic issue, making it necessary to find appropriate structures and instruments for dealing with it at the multilateral level. Therefore, besides dealing a military blow to the FARC, the Colombian government has managed to take the initiative and place itself in a favourable situation for leading the other countries onto common ground in search of a solution.

Unlike other instances when security issues were at stake and rebel groups played a role, this time there has been no direct participation by the governments of the US or Cuba. However, the possibility cannot be ruled out of their having influenced the course of events and above all in defining the positions of various government and political forces.

Analysis: The meeting of Presidents of the Rio Group, held on 7 March in the Dominican Republic, managed to defuse the risk of military confrontation that had emerged in the space of just one week. The statement the Presidents agreed on, in a session that began with angry recriminations, managed at least temporarily to end the sabre-rattling that had echoed through the region in those tense few days. But as often happens in these cases, what drew most attention were the hugs and gestures of friendship the leaders engaged in as the meeting came to a close. These displays and the final statement suggest that much of the problem stemmed from the tough talk of the Presidents of Venezuela and Ecuador and risky accusations from the President and other officials in Colombia. But it would be wrong to view the situation this way: the problem has roots which go deep in all three countries and could creep back to the surface at any time.

There is no denying that the meeting averted a potentially imminent conflict, reduced tensions enough to allow for dialogue and negotiation and, through the accusations and confrontations, even made possible a catharsis that seemed necessary in order to settle old scores, both personal and in the relations between the countries. All this is clearly positive, but by no means sufficient. Basically, what has happened is that an era in which the handling of a conflict stemming from the situation in Colombia was part of its bilateral relations with each of its neighbours has come to an end. The way in which events unfolded during one turbulent week placed the issue in the multilateral realm. In other words, the will of each of the players aside, the conflict became international.

Alter this dizzying string of events many questions remain. They concern the factors that caused the events, how things will evolve and what avenues might be found to seek a lasting solution. Much has been said about the precipitating events, and even the presidential summit centred on them to a large extent. Each of the leaders presented and firmly defended their version of events. Although there is much to be clarified still and this is a puzzle to which pieces keep being added, the matter must not stop there. More important are the other question marks, those having to do with the new situation created through the meeting in Santo Domingo. The biggest doubt has to do with whether the countries involved have a real chance of confronting the new situation adequately. This requires not only will –the meeting of the Presidents showed how important this was– but also a joint effort to create the procedures and instruments necessary to consolidate the new scenario that has emerged.

From Internal Conflict to Multilateralism
It should be considered that if this issue was addressed at a presidential summit that had other goals, it was not necessarily because one of the governments wanted to do so, but rather because the conflict literally spread across borders. Transforming the Colombian conflict into a multilateral issue has been a goal of the Bogotá government, at least since the start of the Plan Colombia. And, paradoxically, it was one of the FARC’s objectives as well. For diametrically opposite reasons, the two parties sought a different kind of participation by neighbouring countries and in general from the Latin American community. Time and time again over the past decade, successive Colombian governments have tried to persuade their Ecuadorean counterparts to change their position of neutrality in the conflict and replace it with more determined action against a group which, through its terrorist activities and alliance with drug trafficking, threatened the security of both countries. At the same time, in more recent years Colombia has tried to stop or at least neutralise the process by which the Venezuelan government grew closer to the Colombian rebels. In both cases the idea was to deny the FARC the possibility of having places to seek refuge and consolidate their rearguard, as well as supply facilities.

The FARC, meanwhile, thought they would reap benefits from making the conflict international because in this way they would create conditions for dealing with Andean governments on their own level. One of those conditions was for the FARC to be recognised as a belligerent. For this they cited as a precedent the recognition of the Sandinista Front in the final phase of the Nicaraguan insurrection. However, for any observer there is an enormous difference between the Sandinista rebels and a terrorist organisation allied to drug traffickers, and between the autocratic Somoza regime and Colombia’s democracy.

But it was not through the will of these players that the issue turned multilateral. Rather, it was the practically inevitable result of the dimension that had already been reached, one that caused its effects to be felt beyond Colombia’s borders. In reality, the issue had already taken on an international dimension a long time ago, when the FARC started to use Ecuadorean and Venezuelan territory for their activities and when they undertook negotiations with the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for the release of hostages. Ecuador responded by redefining its security and defence policy, making the protection of its northern border the fundamental focus (among other things this entailed changing basic aspects of military forces that were designed for conventional warfare). Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government chose to treat the FARC as a political element to which it could turn whenever it saw fit, which meant granting it –by the force of events– the status of a political player in the region.

In these conditions it was unlikely the conflict could remain within Colombia’s borders. Therefore, the latest incident led to the events we have seen. The problem went from being one of border security and humanitarian negotiation to an issue involving three states and even Latin America in general. Ecuador’s main argument –that its sovereignty had been violated– and Colombia’s position that it had to guarantee its security in the face of terrorist actions placed the two countries in a rare position of confrontation. Therefore, what started off as a border incident that could have been resolved within established procedures mushroomed into a string of  very serious circumstances with no precedent in the region, in which Venezuela and Ecuador (and later Nicaragua) severed relations with Colombia. This was the manifestation of the new dimension of the problem, although the personal characteristics of the leaders themselves also played a role.

Four factors were key in creating this situation. First, the Colombian President Álvaro Uribe advocated a military solution to the conflict with rebel forces; voters had endorsed it twice, and it is the foundation of his high approval rating in public opinion polls. The failure of peace talks undertaken by his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, led most people in Colombia to back the military option as the only one for doing away with the FARC and with violence in general. It is difficult to understand that this option has been chosen by a society which at the same time has endorsed democracy firmly as its political system. But a brief look at recent history and a review of the crimes committed by the FARC provide an adequate explanation. The government of Colombia was able to make defeating rebel groups its top priority, one that took precedence over all others. Obviously, relations with neighbouring countries could not escape being affected by this goal, especially if the fighting took place in border regions. It is worth noting that US military, economic and technological assistance was decisive in addressing this goal, and also brought another player into the situation.

In the second place, the position of neutrality observed by several Ecuadorean governments was a determining factor. In strict terms, the idea was non-intervention, as neutrality is not appropriate when a State is under siege from armed rebels. In any case, Ecuador centred its policy on this all-important goal. This meant military action to repel the FARC was of secondary importance, and only a last-resort option that was restricted to cases of flagrant violation of its territory. It was within this framework that Ecuador defined its relations with Colombia. It led to the establishment of procedures and security detachments designed to guarantee surveillance of the border and support Colombian civilians displaced from combat zones. Unrestricted passage of people between the two countries made it possible for guerrillas to cross over in civilian garb and at the same time, as the Ecuadorean military has stated repeatedly, financial limitations and the characteristics of the terrain made it impossible to watch over the border area more closely. One of the results of this group of factors was the establishment of rebel camps –initially for the purposes of rest and re-supply operations, but later as command facilities–. This was seen in the camp that was dismantled in the raid conducted by the Colombian military.

Thirdly, the role played by President Chávez was decisive in that he waged a direct and constant confrontation with the Colombian government and, above all, gave repeated signs of moving closer to the FARC. His relations with leaders of the rebel organisation seem to have gone beyond the dialogue necessary to win the release of hostages, as seen in the public tribute that he paid officially to Reyes. An act of this nature, with such potent symbolism, cannot stem simply from emotions running high as a result of the conflict between the three countries. Rather, it seems the result of Chávez’s search for allies in his strategy of confrontation with the US government. But even if that rapprochement did not actually exist, the general perception in the international context was that it did, and thus it served as an important political factor. It is no secret that the rest of the players –especially the governments of Colombia and the US– considered this apparent alliance as more than just a hypothesis, and therefore acted with this in mind.

The steps taken by the FARC in recent months also played a part. They were characterised by a combination of various kinds of action. On the one hand, the FARC engaged in a selective release of hostages, with the Venezuelan government acting as an intermediary. This put the rebels in a position to take the initiative in this area and establish them as a force that had to be taken into account in the international context. It also allowed the FARC to place on the agenda issues that had not been there before, such as the Venezuelan initiative to recognise the FARC as a belligerent. The guerrillas also boosted their presence in Ecuadorean territory, which besides giving them more operational capacity, took the conflict outside Colombia’s borders. Finally, faced with a government military offensive, the rebels attached more importance to political action aimed at gaining support in the international arena. The negotiations for the hostage releases became an important factor in this regard, especially because of the participation of many governments and organisations which saw in this the possibility of reaching humanitarian accords.

The New Scenario and How it Might Evolve
The meeting of the Rio Group Presidents came just as all these circumstances reached a turning point. Therefore, even though the meeting had been convened to deal with other issues, it had to address this one only, and thus became a landmark establishing a before and after for the Colombian conflict. From that point on it became a regional issue that needed to be dealt with as such. This means it is necessary to develop instruments and procedures for handling it in forums which, to some extent, had been indifferent to the Colombian drama. In particular, the Organisation of American States (OAS) must employ all the imagination it can to confront a problem it does not know much about. But the governments of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela must also devise instruments and procedures that make the new situation manageable, especially if the goal of all of them is supposedly to achieve peace in Colombia. However, there are three problems that might turn out to be obstacles.

The first is how each of those governments interprets the concept of peace. Even if this is understood in its most elementary version, such as the absence of war or even violence, as a starting point for dealing with social and political demands, there will always be a wide margin for interpretations. Above all, it is likely that more than one of them will deem it necessary to comply with a series of conditions in order to reach peace and that these will include a string of concessions to rebel groups. The government of Venezuela and to a lesser extent that of Ecuador might argue strongly that the rebels represent legitimate interests which stem from the exclusion and living conditions of the Colombian people. This would clash head on with the interpretation of the Colombian government and evidently with its dogged, irreversible position in favour of a military solution. Nor would it be readily accepted by Colombian public opinion, which would see it as a betrayal after having made enormous sacrifices in recent years. For this reason it would be important to know the terms under which Presidents Uribe and Chávez engage in dialogue, which began a week after the meeting of the Rio Group.

The second obstacle could be the persistence of the controversy between the governments of Ecuador and Colombia. Even though it accepted and signed the statement of the Presidents at the meeting in Santo Domingo, the government of Ecuador has kept up its confrontation with that of Colombia and reiterated its decision to ‘reach the final consequences’ so that Álvaro Uribe will be explicitly condemned over the military incursion. The release of information obtained from a computer belonging to Raúl Reyes (the authenticity of which seems to have been confirmed by photographs showing persons who visited the camp in the days prior to his death) has been interpreted in Ecuadorean government circles as a story made up to tarnish their country. This hinders the prospects for building the confidence necessary to reach some kind of agreement.

Finally, the very unfolding of events and above all the fact that they shifted to the multilateral arena narrows the field in which the players can operate. Colombia’s incursion into Ecuadorean territory made it clear that there is insufficient control of the border between the two countries. This will be impossible in the future, especially when an OAS commission or other multilateral intermediary body is formed. The new situation requires changes in strategy by both countries. On the one hand it obliges the Colombian government to move military forces towards the border, which will force it to change its strategy of pushing the FARC towards the south. On the other hand it forces the government of Ecuador to control the area more effectively, which to some extent means changing its policy of neutrality.

The Venezuelan government has also seen its room for manoeuvring reduced, both in mediation efforts for the release of hostages and its implicit support for the FARC. Chávez’s initiative to normalise relations with Colombia and his attitude at the summit, when he suddenly switched from insults and tough talk to a conciliatory tone, might be due precisely to his having realised his hands are somewhat tied. This would suggest more a realistic calculation of his possibilities than a substantial change in the position he had maintained, which would leave many questions unanswered for the future. This would be the case even if Chávez were acting out of pressure from Fidel Castro, who might see a regional confrontation as a risk for the ideological project that some Latin American countries are carrying out.

At the same time the FARC would find itself with a context less favourable than the one it had until now. The changes the three governments must introduce will be an important factor in this regard. In particular, the new approach that the government of Ecuador will have to adopt –although this will probably take time– will mean at the very least it will be much harder for the FARC to use Ecuadorean territory. Even the new conditions that Chávez will find in the new dimension of relations with Colombia will be an adverse factor for the rebel group.

Conclusions: Recent events have shifted the Colombian conflict to the international arena, and all the players involved will have to adapt their strategies to this new reality. It is very unlikely they can stick to the positions they had observed, which took them to the verge of military conflict in the first week of March. However, the process of adaptation and of building the new institutions and procedures that are necessary will take time. A rather drawn out process that will have its ups and downs is to be expected. Friction between the three governments –and in particular between those of Ecuador and Colombia– has left wounds that will take a long time to heal. So the only guarantee of success lies in intervention by multilateral organisations or the creation of supranational bodies that take on the task of designing mechanisms of solution and surveillance to see that they are fulfilled. To the extent that the conflict has shifted to the international arena, the solution must also be found there.

However, the reactions spurred in Colombia and Ecuador will be an obstacle for this mediation. Public opinion in both countries backed the positions of the respective governments; in other words, security as the main goal for Colombia and sovereignty in the case of Ecuador. Those expressing divergent opinions or criticism were the minority. This left a narrow margin for analysis to understand adequately this episode in an already complex situation. In particular, the goal of defending territorial integrity in the case of Ecuador took precedence over aspects of similar importance, such as the presence of the FARC and its relations with people or organisations in Ecuador, or the failure by the military and police to detect a rebel camp that apparently had been set up months earlier.

A position like this –which stresses territorial sovereignty understood only as protection from another State– established a clear imbalance with the other factors we have discussed. As the Ecuadorean government was mainly concerned with the attack by the Colombian military, any rejection or condemnation it might have expressed towards the FARC was weakened. In reality, the government was much less explicit in this regard, and has been quite reluctant (just like the Constituent Assembly that took on the functions of Congress) to carry out an internal investigation into the information that was allegedly found in Raúl Reyes’ computer. As a result of this, many issues have been left untouched and the government has not used this crisis to state clearly its position towards the terrorist group.

Simón Pachano
Professor and researcher at the Latin American School of Social Sciences, FLACSO, at its Ecuador campus