Monday, March 10, 2008

Venezuela and Ecuador Resolve Differences with Colombia at Regional Summit

March 8th 2008, by James Suggett for

Mérida, March 8, 2008 ( - During the 20th Presidential Summit of the Río Group, held Friday in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, the Ecuadorian, Colombian, and Venezuelan heads of state reached an agreement that effectively cooled off the diplomatic crisis, which had raged across Latin America last week following air and land attacks by Colombian armed forces last Saturday on encampments of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) inside Ecuadorian territory.

The declaration endorsed by the 19 member countries of the Río Group, which was created in 1986 to be a political forum for Latin American heads of state, included a rejection of the violation of Ecuadorian territorial sovereignty and an endorsement of the resolution of the Organization of American States (OAS), which had denounced Colombia's attack on Thursday. Moreover, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe issued a formal apology to the Ecuadorian government and people and took full responsibility for the attacks.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa had made clear throughout the week that mere diplomatic apologies would not suffice for the resolution of this conflict, so the Río Group declaration also sealed the commitment of President Uribe to "not repeat" the acts that provoked the conflict, and of all member states to respect national sovereignty and uphold peaceful coexistence in the region.

In return, President Correa agreed to receive the documentation that the Uribe administration claimed incriminated Correa for having an inappropriate relationship with the FARC.

During the summit, Uribe read the documents, which were allegedly salvaged from the wreckage of the attacks in a computer that belonged to Raúl Reyes, the FARC second in command who was killed in the assault. Correa responded by asserting that his hands "are not stained with blood" and he rejected the idea that the Ecuadorian government had "collaborated with the FARC".

However, Correa had made clear on Thursday that his government had been in contact with the FARC in order to negotiate the liberation of 12 hostages, including the French ex-presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt whose release is a top priority of French President Nicolás Sarkozy. French Foreign Relations Minister Bernard Kouchner confirmed that his government was aware of Correa's negotiations with the FARC.

Correa claimed that Uribe knew that the Betancourt's liberation was being arranged for this month and accused the Colombian president of deliberately obstructing the humanitarian process by going ahead with the attacks on the previous Saturday.

The Ecuadorian president proposed to the Río Group Friday the creation of an "international force that controls the border that Colombia does not know how to control with its militarist policies."

Uribe remained staunchly opposed to any such international group that would presumably be involved in the Colombia-based conflict, including the idea supported by several presidents, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, of forming a multi-state negotiating group to bring forth a humanitarian accord between the Colombian government and the FARC.

Also in the Summit's final declaration was a commitment among those involved in the recent conflict to maintain the lines of communication open.

While Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega called the Colombian assault on FARC encampments "state terrorism," he nonetheless retracted his termination of diplomatic relations with the Colombian government, proclaiming that "the agreements reached permit Nicaragua to backtrack in its rupture of relations with Colombia."

Ecuador's President Correa, however, said that the restoration of diplomatic relations with Colombia "will take a little time," because "it will be very difficult to restore trust," and added that he would "coordinate with Venezuela and make a timeline" and try to repair the relationship quickly.

President Chávez, who in the past week had railed against Uribe, called for heads of state at the Summit to "reflect, keep a cool head, because if we continue, this will continue heating up."

Chavez argued that Uribe's defense of the violation of Ecuador's soveriengty represented nothing less than a "vindication" of the principle that terrorism may be fought anywhere in the world, regardless of the affected country's sovereignty. This is the same principle that led to the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.

Responding to the Colombian government's charge that the FARC computer's supposedly proved Chavez's support for the FARC, Chavez related two anecdotes of how a former president of Colombia, Ernesto Samper, and a former president of Ecuador, Hugo Banzer, both eventually apologized to him for having launched similar accusations against him at different points in his life.

Chavez reiterated that there is no military solution to the conflict in Colombia, declaring his desire to "move closer to the path of peace, [and] distance ourselves from the path of war," adding that Ecuador and Venezuela so far have "done everything possible".

"We have reached the time to detain this whirlpool in which we could end up repenting, and not only ourselves but our peoples, children and communities, for who knows how much time," Chávez advised the group, while reiterating that the Venezuelan government has not collaborated with the FARC.

Foreign Minister Carlos Morales Trancoso praised the positive interventions of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, whose call for "frank dialogue" to reduce tensions at the summit was echoed by Uribe and several others. He also thanked Argentine President Cristina de Kirchner, Panamanian President Martín Torrijos, and President Chávez, who, he said, "behaved like a true pacifist."

Morales Trancoso hailed the outcome of the Río Group as the autonomous achievement of a more united Latin America. "We have to remember that the Río Group is the only political forum that we Latin Americans have, [and] without the influence of anybody we have come to an agreement and resolved this big problem."

Following the heated debates that took place over the 10-hour day, President Correa announced that "through dialogue, we were able to overcome a very grave conflict." Nonetheless, the Ecuadorian president maintained a stern demeanor upon shaking hands with Uribe at the end of the summit.

"The problem is not solved with an embrace," Correa commented after making amends with Uribe, urging the Colombian President to "accept international mediation to resolve the problem of the FARC."

Along with his call for peaceful dialogue, Chávez announced that he had received proof of life of 6 FARC hostages, and Venezuelan Minister of Justice and the Interior Ramón Rodríguez Chacín confirmed that the total proofs of life had been increased to 10 just before Chávez's departure for Santo Domingo. It remains unclear when these hostages might be released, and whether they will be released unilaterally or in exchange for insurgents currently imprisoned.

On the same day, news reports accompanied by photographs allegedly recovered from the scene of last Saturday's bombardment revealed that a group of Chilean Communist Party members had visited the FARC encampment where Raúl Reyes was killed in his pajamas by Colombian forces last Saturday.

41 year-old Manuel Olate commented that the camp was "pretty simple" and meant to provide a safe space, outside of Colombia, to "receive people who worked for humanitarian exchange," as 25 year-old Valeska López put it. "It had wooden beds and a classroom. There was nothing that one could say was a camp for military actions," Olate recounted.

Aside from the declaration about the conflict with Colombia, the Río Group also ratified Haiti as the 20th member of the Río Group.