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Ecuador’s Correa wins on points

by Mirjam Gehrke
After a Colombian air strike destroyed a camp belonging to FARC guerrillas in Ecuador, diplomacy prevented full-fledged war. Colombia and the USA became isolated within the Organisation of American States, whereas Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez embarrassed himself. [ By Mirjam Gehrke ]

Latin America is not the Middle East, and Colombia is not the Latin American counterpart to Israel, despite Washington’s strategic interests in the region and its excellent relationship with the Colombian government. After the air strike, Latin American diplomats formed a united front against the Washington-Bogotà axis. It is the consensus across Latin America that fight on drugs and terrorism does not justify breaching a country’s sovereignty.

Ecuador and Colombia are once again using diplomatic channels. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has apologised to his Ecuadorian counterpart Rafael Correa. And even Venezuela toned down its heated rhetoric after an OAS crisis meeting in early March. Probably, it was mostly domestic motives that drove the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela to deploy thousands of troops along the Colombian borders during the crisis. Both countries economically depend on trade with Colombia. Militarily, Ecuador doesn’t stand a chance against its heavily armed neighbour. Colombia commands the largest armed forces in Latin America, with a total of 270,000 men in three branches of service and 140,000 uniformed police.
Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe remains highly popular among voters. In a Gallup poll taken in March after the air strike on the FARC, 82 % of those surveyed said they agreed with the president. He owes his high reputation consistent militarisation of the conflict with the guerrillas, who once kidnapped and murdered his father. His tough-as-nails policy – shaped by his own biography – depends on billions of dollars of support from Washington. The USA has been funding the war on terror and the drug trade for years. And there’s a method to Uribe’s cross-border incursions: he is forcing the guerrillas back, and thus exporting the war into neighbouring countries.

Correa has longstanding complaints about the high costs of securing the border. Ecuador has deployed 10,000 soldiers there permanently. In recent years, Ecuador’s government repeatedly deplored Colombia’s spraying of illegal coca plantations on Ecuadorian territory – an activity the US backs. The main victims of the Colombian airplanes are small farmers, whose crops are destroyed, and who fall ill because of the pesticides. The latest crisis in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela should be seen as a dry run for something in line with the old principle of “destabilising governments critical of the US”. The United States depends on Venezuelan oil, and is keeping a watchful eye on Ecuador's still untapped oil wells. Presidents Correa and Chávez, however, are both highly critical of the US, undermining Washington’s aims.

Chávez is under increasing pressure in his own country. His social appeasement model seems close to collapse in view of a
22 % inflation rate and food shortages. There’s little sign of economic progress, despite substantial foreign-exchange revenues due to oil exports. There is too little housing, too few new jobs. Members of the middle classes react with capital flight and emigration. The moment was promising for forcing the hand of Venezuela's government, and Chávez promptly embarrassed himself. After a lot of martial rhetoric, he was soon seen patting Uribe’s shoulder in public at the OAS summit in Santo Domingo.

While Correa failed to get approval for sanctions on Colombia, he did nonetheless get a welcome response from governments across the continent. Within the OAS, Correa managed to isolate the US and Colombia. What Latin America needs now are sober-minded diplomats, strengthening the ties within the South American community of nations, dealing with diverging interests in dialogue. Moreover, it is crucial that people in politically stable countries with growing economies get a bigger piece of the pie – especially given the boom in commodities. A more equitable distribution of income would be the most promising way to fight terrorism.