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UNASUR Makes efforts to Restore Colombia-Venezuela Ties

By Odeen Ishmael

Guyana Journal, August 2010

The meeting in Quito on July 29 of Foreign Ministers of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), aimed at finding a solution to the political-diplomatic crisis between Venezuela and Colombia, ended without consensus or a final signed declaration. But the Foreign Ministers agreed that the Heads of State should meet as soon as possible to help resolve the situation.

Some initial reports indicated that Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez stated that the representatives of the 12 member-states came to an initial agreement, but Venezuelan Foreign Minister Maduro refused to sign the document at the last minute. According to these reports, Maduro stated that signing an agreement was not the objective of the meeting and asked that any such document should be considered non-official.

During the meeting the Brazilian government proposed that both Venezuela and Colombia should commit to resolve their differences using “peaceful means” while fighting against illegally armed groups, especially those linked to drug smuggling. In addition, Brazil also suggested that each country should refrain from making “public declarations that aggravate the situation” and that they should send their views on resolving the crisis to the chairman of UNASUR to be considered in the proposed presidential summit.

Late in the evening, at a news conference after the five-hour meeting, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, whose country holds the UNASUR chair, said that “it was not possible to draw up a final accord that all agreed on.” But he added that the participants stressed that “to maintain peace in the region and harmony in inter-state relations, it is necessary to make a clear effort against the presence of illegal groups in the nations of the region.”

He highlighted the importance of the Quito meeting which included the Foreign Ministers Jaime Bermudez of Colombia and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela sitting at the same table to discuss the crisis.

Patino said that during discussions it was clear that there was a commitment by all the member-states “to avoid the presence of irregular groups that alter regional harmony, that are involved in activities beyond the rule of the law, and unsettle the existence of peace in each of our countries and in the region.”

He also affirmed that President Correa, as UNASUR's chairman, would “collect all the different criteria, proposals and statements from the different countries on the peace proposals for the region.” These eventually will be presented to a presidential summit of UNASUR which will address the still unsolved issues, and which, according to the Foreign Ministers, will require “a higher level of definitions and accords, at the highest level.”

The crisis broke out between Caracas and Bogotá over Colombia's accusation that Venezuela was offering shelter and logistic support in its territory to around 1,500 guerrillas of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Caracas rejected the allegations and broke off diplomatic relations with Bogotá on July 22. Soon after, Venezuela, invoking the UNASUR treaty on finding quick solutions to political problems between states, requested a meeting of the body's Council of Foreign Ministers to seek a solution. Soon after, Ecuador's President, Rafael Correa requested his Foreign Minister to call an emergency meeting of the Council to mediate a solution.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, who also urged the meeting, said relations had deteriorated to such a point that the South American grouping “should not allow war to happen between brother countries.”

While no agenda of the Quito meeting was made public, the Venezuelan state media on July 29 reported that Maduro planned to present a peace plan at the forum to end the civil war in Colombia since the conflict was producing consequences for the entire region. On the program, “Wake Up Venezuela”, on Venezolana de Television (VTV), the nation's Ambassador to Colombia, Gustavo Marquez - now recalled since the break in diplomatic relations - explained that the initiative could not be described as interventionist, and stressed that it was logical for his government to present this proposal within UNASUR, given that the Colombian conflict and the serious problems in that nation, such as drug trafficking, criminality and paramilitary activity, were affecting the entire region.

In Brasilia the day before, Maduro presented Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with his regional peace plan proposal. Maduro was at the time beginning a seven-nation South America tour aimed at informing every president of the region about Venezuela's position on its quarrel with Colombia. He flew to Buenos Aires the next evening where he met with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. “In Quito, we will discuss within the scope of South America to ensure compliance with UNASUR's plan to turn the region into a zone of peace,” Maduro declared.

However, the Colombian Foreign Minister rejected Venezuela's talk about a peace process for his country, and termed such a move as unacceptable.

With the failure of the Foreign Ministers' meeting to broker a compromise, the UNASUR Heads of State meeting is now expected to be convened early in August, but it definitely will not be held until after the inauguration on August 7 of the new Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos.

Before the convening of the Foreign Ministers' meeting, the Secretary General of UNASUR, Nestor Kirchner, had expressed concerns over the deteriorating relations between Venezuela and Colombia, saying that “it hurts that two Latin American countries have this level of confrontation.” He added that the continental organization would help to bring the two nations together and maintain the close relationship between their peoples.

On July 27, Kirchner met in Buenos Aires with Santos to discuss the Colombia-Venezuela crisis. The Colombian President-elect was on a visit to Argentina, as part of a Latin American tour of Mexico, Panama, Chile and Peru. He also held discussions with Maduro during the latter's stop-over in Buenos Aires.

There are also indications that Kirchner has agreed to head a fence-mending mission in early August, following consultations with Presidents da Silva and Correa. Kirchner would reportedly travel to Caracas on August 5 to meet with President Hugo Chavez and to Bogotá the next day to meet with Santos and also with outgoing President Alvaro Uribe.

Meanwhile, da Silva on July 27 also announced plans to embark on his own shuttle diplomacy in a bid to resolve a diplomatic crisis. He announced that he would go to Caracas and Bogotá on August 6 to speak with Chavez and with Uribe and Santos, who takes office the next day.

“We have an interest in UNASUR to build peace,” da Silva stated. “I believe we have to restore normalcy in the ties between Venezuela and Colombia because they are two important countries in South America.”

High hopes are now placed on these planned diplomatic fence-building efforts. Clearly, their objective is to demonstrate the influence of UNASUR as a regional body in solving regional conflicts and disagreements. The upcoming emergency presidential summit will pronounce on what level of success they eventually achieve.

Caracas, 31 July 2010

The writer is Guyana's Ambassador to Venezuela and is currently the Chairman of the Latin American Council of the Latin American and Caribbean Economic System (SELA). The views expressed are solely his.