With the recent breathless events in Colombia I think it is time that we review a little bit the situation. And as it is usually the case it is best to start with a map. Courtesy of Google Earth I made the one below, which might not be the prettiest one for sure but more useful than anything else I could find in the net.
The situation BEFORE the latest Venezuela/Colombia break up
Three things before I start: 1) I am not making any judgment call or pretending to favor one position over the other, all what follows is a statement of fact or close to it; 2) some things I will write are not P.C. and would never be said in staid diplomatic circles, but you can always try to prove me wrong and 3) I will not put links because there would be too many links to add; read this as a tall tale if you wish or trust me, it is up to you.
The fact of the matter is that Colombia today has every right to feel like a cornered country; not by a lack of friends, it does have some, but the countries around its vital borders are now ruled by avowed enemies not only of Uribe but of any Colombian government that will not welcome the FARC as a ruling partner.
The red flat arrows represent these countries actively wishing for a change of regime in Colombia and taking all measures they can take to that effec,t short of open warfare. Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua now are in open confrontation while Cuba still with official links to Colombia is the evil machinery behind all of this all. More than Venezuela, for its human value Colombia would be the golden fleece of Castrism; Colombia is a complicated country to attack militarily so a good base from where to launch attacks, only a step away from the Panama Canal and Venezuela's oil.
To compensate these un-friends Colombia has very little. Brazil is a neutral country at best. But Brazil is empire building and it is not in its interest that any Spanish speaking country develops enough to become one day a challenge. In XXI century "empires" is not understood as actual territorial conquest but as areas of infleucne where the people in hit are just too linked to the main power to dare go against it. The only country that could do so one day is Colombia, not by its size but by its land a climate that can support a consequent population, its relative better education and its privileged strategic position: no matter how strong Brazil becomes, as long as Colombia is prosperous and at the center of a sensible alliance (with or without the US) Brazil will never be able be the US of South America. Bolivar already anticipated this since his dream of Gran Colombia was the ideal wedge between the inevitable rise of the US and Brazil. Thus the wavering yellow line at its border, a relatively safe border for Colombia just because Bogota and Brasilia are so distant. That yellow line could turn red at any time.
In front of all this Colombia has only two friendly neighbors. Peru is far and ethnically different enough that there is no significant rivalry there. Besides Peru is much more mired in its Southern flank instability. Currently both countries have different political ruling groups but they share one thing, the belief that free markets, with some control, are the best way to dig from underdevelopment. As such Colombia and Peru have shown a rather healthy economic grow in the recent decade, and generally warm relations.
Panama is small and a small piece of Colombia to begin with. But it has become one of the playgrounds of rich Colombians who can hide there part of their fortunes. Adding to this that the border is a very inhospitable jungle, there is no hard feelings left. With the new political turn to the right in Panama we can even expect a closer relation. Costa Rica is enemy with no one but probably prefers Colombia to Nicaragua or Venezuela. And we can expect a post Zelaya Honduras to establish warm relations with Colombia: if there is a country that understands the need to get rid of chavismo/FARC at all costs is Colombia.
Now that I hope the context is established let's look at what happened in recent days.
The FARC rockets
The trigger was disarmingly simple: the Colombian Army found in a FARC camp small rocket launchers made in Sweden and sold to Venezuela before Chavez became president. Chavez this week finally explained the reason these rockets found their way to the FARC: they robbed them in 1995 or something like that. Not very convincing, and curiously pointless. More important, the explanations came AFTER he suspended relations with Colombia and after he expressed unambiguously that he wanted to stop commercial deals with Colombia. In other words, that he did things in the reverse order proves that his intention all along was to find an excuse to break with Colombia once and for all.
The reasons for this sudden radicalization can be found in the internal situation of Venezuela where Chavez got three very worrisome polls this week. All conclude that a reelection in 2012 is looking uphill with three long years to go where the only hope is a return of oil to the 100 USDso as to bring him out of the financial ditch he has fallen. As the fascist-like regime he now presides Chavez resorts to well worn strategies such as crude nationalist baiting.
But the reason can also be found in the complete dossier that Colombian intelligence has established on the Chavez government. If in Venezuela the press is a little bit demure, or lazy, in doing the necessary inquiring, when you read the Colombian one you can see by yourself the amount of details exposed, with names of Venezuelan officials collaborating with the FARC, dates, locales, etc, etc... In other words Chavez knows that he cannot deal with the charges and prefers to attribute them to an hostile country, even if he needs to invent that hostility.
The US bases in Colombia
That was the excuse for Chavez to try to turn the table around and put the spot light on Colombia. It certainly would work at first.
The reason why it could work is the that there is a knee jerk reaction in South America against the US. This reflex is understandable considering our past relations. However besides the Panama intervention to justifiably remove Noriega there has been really not much to complain from the US since the Carter years. We are talking now 35 years out of the 140 the US Empire has arguably existed.
But how can you expect Brazil's Lula and Chile's Bachelet, who personally suffered greatly in their earlier years of the consequences of US intervention in South America politics to remain cool when Colombia announced that the US base dismantled in Ecuador will come back as several small units in Colombia? It was easy for Chavez to focus the attention on that but it will be more difficult to keep it.
Why the bases? On a drug war logic it is certainly a good thing. After all now the Colombian army has demonstrated its strength and serious observers know that the Colombian military will not be there to serve coffee to US officials. Both sides benefit from their joint effort: the US on its war on drugs and Colombia on its war on terrorist FARC and ELN.
Interestingly the folks who are opposing that are not really using the sound argument that the US should start by putting order at home, punishing consumers first, before they go around bombing out drug traffickers who today are an easily renewable commodity. Folks prefer to play the anti US card.
It seems that in Colombia public opinion not only is backing the new bases, with the appropriate conditions, but also the tightening of relations with Venezuela. Because there is another logic here for the bases: Venezuela has become a very erratic regime, led by a violent man who has been demonstrated to support the FARC, and all sorts of other unsavory regimes. The Honduras open intervention was perhaps the last nail for Chavez Colombian coffin as it was clear how Chavez treats allies. Colombians are certainly not the folks to take up lightly mistreatment by Venezuelans, and even less by a vulgar military like Chavez when the Colombian ones express themselves so properly. That is why business guilds of Colombia told Uribe that they will find new markets because Colombia should not once again bow to Chavez. Something taken up by the Colombian Church and other sectors while some in the opposition are taking, in my opinion, the dangerous gamble of trying to patch up once again with Chavez.
Indeed, a lot of people do not understand that the reelection of Uribe has marked a permanent shift to the right in Colombia. The traditional Conservative Party has put itself behind Uribe as well as the right wing of the Liberal party. Colombia around Uribe has enjoyed a consensus sorely lacking for decades, coupled to a successful and durable economic growth and of course a verifiable pacification of the country. It seems that Uribe will not to commit the mistake of running for a third term. Placing at the helm yet another liberal right president such as Santos could usher another decade of stable government, and thus the possibility of the FARC finally negotiating a surrender in order to avoid a final wipe out.
Uribe is thus probably looking to the distant future and this is also an element that must be considered in his whirlwind tour of South America capitals.
Uribe's grand tour
Uribe has been spending a few hours in the following capitals, meeting all South American head of states and taking evenly sympathy or disapproval. Why is this significant even if on the surface Uribe might appear on the defensive?
First you must understand that Uribe is not discussing only the why of the bases in Colombia, a battle he knows very well he cannot win in today's environment. But he also knows that within two years there might be right wing victories in Chile, Uruguay, and maybe even Brazil, so Uribe is certainly playing for the long term, to better days and as the true statesman he is , Uribe is probably already working for his legacy and to ensure the success of his follower.
What Uribe is taking along is the dossier he has on Chavez, certainly the real reason of his stop over in hostile La Paz, to make sure Evo Morales knows what he is defending and the risks he is taking if he follows Chavez all the way through. Evo might anyway, he is too dependent on Chavez now, but Uribe will be able to say "I told you" and along the way strengthens the opposition to Evo without disrespecting him.
But that dossier of Chavez is also for the promoters of UNASUR, namely Brazil's Lula. UNASUR is mostly a Brazilian invention, something that would be a more effective OAS but without the US, a NATO of sorts where Brazil would occupy the center stage as the US occupies it in the NATO. In other words, UNASUR is the tool that Brazil counts on to become the king of the hill. Without Colombia UNASUR makes no sense. Uribe stop in Brasilia will be to tell Lula that unless he starts becoming more effective at controlling Chavez, unless UNASUR is a real protection instrument engaging for Colombia against he FARC, then Colombia will proceed with its next best option: a tight alliance with the US.
The threat is not empty. An increasingly beleaguered Democratic administration that is not finding its footing fast at home and outside might finally decide to cast its lot with Colombia as the only possible reliable ally with Mexico. Uribe is going to get its FTA even if it means distancing itself of its continenalt sector. Why? Only an FTA can free Colombia from its commercial ties with Venezuela and Ecuador, while at the same time making these two countries economical non entities. Barak Obama in fact seems to slowly understand this reality that he inherited. After all, the nice reception of Bush by Lula was more the one of a seller to his big customer, a way to show that Brazil was becoming a big player. Obama might be realizing this as he is drawing closer to Colombia, as the only way to avoid a fight with the inner cities that are his natural constituency: better give Colombia an FTA and help them on the drug war rather than doing at home what really needs to be done to stop drug consumption, such as putting to jail his leftist Hollywood friend or the black dealers of the ghetto. Real Politics at their crassest.
As for the first impression or Uribe's tour, it is clear that he has undone some of the Chavez damage. True, Evo did not budge and the dingbat at Buenos Aires is too stupid, too corrupt and too dependent on Chavez to even understand what is going on. But Brazil and Chile toned down. Brazil relative moderation after initial disapproval seems to indicate that Uribe's objective of telling Brazil that it needs to control Chavez if it wants UNASUR to succeed went through. We cannto expect Brazil to jeopradize its business in Venezuela for the sake of Colombia, but signs are promising that at least on FARC and drugs Brasilia might become less lenient with Chavez, remindign him, who knows, that after all Chavez did offer Venezuelan territory for Russian bases.
Things are so volatile already and Chavez is so mercurial lately that we can speculate from an incoming war with Venezuela to a patch up of things with an active role of UNASUR to end the FARC conflict. But there are two changes that seem to be taking place and to modify for the long term the way this chess game is played. It seems that Chavez this time means it, that he wants to wean himself from Colombia because he knows that the trade deficit in favor of Colombia will protect him less and less agaisnt the mounting evidence of his association with the FARC. Chavez is casting his lot, is jettisoning fast his democratic pretense, is cornered at home. He is about to make his final grab for final complete power Cuba style and 6 billion dollar purchases a year from Colombia is not going to help. Not to mention that once Chavez has installed the regime he has always wanted he will be forced to support the FARC more actively than what he does today, with all the risks this entails.
The second change mirrors the first one: in Colombia they have resigned themselves to a long Chavez tenure, and even if he falls tomorrow they visualize an unstable and unreliable Venezuela for at least a decade anyway. The consequence of Chavez will last until 2021, with him in power or not. Colombians have now the full dossier on the man and they fully know what he is able to do. But they also know that the Colombian economy has diversified, grown and solidified whereas the Venezuelan one is more dependent than ever on oil. Colombians now have the dangerous confidence of countries that know they can win wars, and easily, countries that know that time is on their side.
Let's hope that UNASUR and Brazil get the message and start bring Chavez down to heel before it is too late for us, his hostage victims.
Meanwhile let's not get into the easy gamesmanship to get against the bases or in favor: they are not going to solve anything in or out; and besides there are already plenty of US technician and military personnel in Colombia, a number that could be increased easily even if for political reasons Uribe withdrew the military bases. Even Obama chimed in to that effect, implying that the "bases" were not bases after all.
The US military bases or camps or spots are jsut an excuse. This is something else, probably a broad strategic move sped up when Zelaya was overthrown. The confrontation with the ALBA/Chavez has started, or rather the confrontation between representative democracy with occidental values and populist plebiscite driven regimes. That confrontation is unavoidable and the military bases are in fact a means of pressure to force countries to start choosing their side while damage can still be limited.