Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

SOUTH AMERICA: Brazil Under Pressure to Mediate Conflict

Mario Osava*

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 3 2008 (IPS) - Colombia’s military incursion into Ecuador is at the centre of the current crisis between three Andean nations, which must be resolved within the framework of the Organisation of American States (OAS), according to the Brazilian government’s official position as expressed Monday by Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.

Bodies in FARC camp in Ecuador attacked by Colombia. Credit: Telesur

Bodies in FARC camp in Ecuador attacked by Colombia. Credit: Telesur

Ecuador announced Monday that it was breaking off diplomatic ties with Colombia, while Venezuela closed its embassy in Bogotá and expelled the Colombian ambassador and other diplomatic personnel from Caracas.

Both Ecuador and Venezuela sent troops to their borders with Colombia after soldiers from that country entered Ecuadorian territory on Saturday to carry out a bombing raid in which a top FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla leader was killed.

A new apology by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, more straightforward and without the limitations of the first, could reduce the tension, which is the immediate objective, said Amorim.

The question of Venezuela is not a problem for the time being, he added.

“The violation of Ecuadorian territory is condemnable,” said the Brazilian minister, who ruled out the possible “extenuating circumstances” set forth in the Colombian government’s arguments of its need to defend itself.

The Brazilian government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called for an OAS commission to investigate the Colombian military operation that took place in Ecuador.

According to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, Saturday’s military raid, in which the guerrilla leader known as FARC’s “foreign minister,” Raúl Reyes, and around 20 other insurgents were killed, was “a massacre, not a hot pursuit.”

Correa, who said Colombian aircraft entered at least 10 km into Ecuadorian air space in order to attack Reyes’ camp from the south, said the incident was “extremely grave and intolerable.”

He said Ecuador “cannot trust a government that betrays the confidence and trust of a sister nation.”

“We have consistently expressed our condemnation of the actions and methods of the FARC,” but “there is no justification whatsoever for a foreign military operation in our territory, regardless of the motive. International law requires that we be informed and that Ecuadorian forces carry out the capture, as has already occurred on numerous occasions, always with total respect for human rights,” said Correa.

The Ecuadorian leader said he spoke Sunday with the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela and with the secretary-generals of the OAS and the Andean Community trade bloc.

He called on the OAS and the Andean Community, as well as the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) trade bloc (made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) to meet to discuss Colombia’s violation of Ecuador’s national sovereignty.

In response to Colombian allegations that Ecuador has not cooperated in the past in pursuing Colombia’s insurgent groups, Ecuadorian Defence Minister Wellington Sandoval said his country’s armed forces have discovered and destroyed 47 FARC camps in the last few years and have arrested Colombian guerrillas in Ecuador.

“Well aware of its obligations, Ecuador has constantly guarded the 720-km Colombian-Ecuadorian border, which is, if not impossible to control, at least extremely difficult in terms of keeping citizens from crossing from one side to the other, which is not only an Ecuadorian task,” said Sandoval.

“Our cooperation with the armed forces of our sister nation Colombia has been amply demonstrated. In fact, there is a joint security pact between the armed forces of both countries and CONBIFRON (the Binational Border Commission) to act in cases in which there is suspicion of problems along the border,” said the minister.

The Ecuadorian government said it was breaking off ties with Colombia as a result of “the clear violation of Ecuador’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity and the grave accusations” by the Colombian government, which insinuated that the Correa administration had agreements with the FARC.

“These unfounded accusations constitute an unfriendly act and a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the violation of Ecuadorian territorial sovereignty, which was admitted by the Colombian government itself in communiqués and diplomatic notes,” said the Ecuadorian government.

The Brazilian government’s position that the crisis should be dealt with at the level of the OAS runs counter to a widespread view among legislators and analysts who have called for broad, active mediation by Brazil in general, and not only in the current crisis.

But Amorim said the government is attempting to “facilitate dialogue,” with President Lula remaining in close contact by telephone with his counterparts in the countries involved in the crisis.

The Brazilian government should take a proactive role in creating a group of Latin American countries that would mediate in the conflict, Senator Cristovam Buarque, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told IPS.

Acting on its own, “it would not be successful,” but the question must be resolved within the regional sphere, without the participation of countries from outside, especially the United States, he said.

But “it has to happen fast” because South America is facing the risk of the most serious conflict since the War of the Pacific, a border dispute in which Chile fought Bolivia and Peru between 1879 and 1884, said the senator, who belongs to the Democratic Labour Party (PDT).

An armed conflict, even one of limited scope “lasting a single day and with as few as two soldiers killed, would leave a permanent blot” on South American relations, and would completely undermine the regional integration process, he warned.

Mediation is necessary, and Brazil should exercise its leadership role, joining together with other countries to keep the current crisis from causing damages throughout the region, said the president of the lower house of Congress, Arlindo Chinaglia of the governing Workers Party, expressing a view shared by other lawmakers.

Brazil is also the supplier of the planes used by the Colombian air force to bomb the FARC camp in Ecuador, which according to Correa was located three km from the border.

The planes formed part of a batch of 25 Super Tucans sold to Colombia in 2005 by the Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica (EMBRAER), which manufactures both military and passenger aircraft.

But Brazil has no responsibility in the matter, said Senator Buarque, who pointed out that the sale of airplanes is a “question of trade,” not “a donation or military cooperation.”

Colombia would simply have purchased aircraft from another source if EMBRAER had not sold it the planes, he argued.

Venezuela was also interested in buying the same kind of planes from Brazil, but was blocked from doing so by the United States, because some of the parts in the Brazilian-made planes come from the U.S. The Venezuelan air force eventually upgraded its fleet with Russian-made aircraft.

But while Buarque sounded dire warnings of armed combat, Amorim said there was very little chance of the crisis escalating to that point.

The crisis is more a matter of aggressive rhetoric, agreed Clóvis Brigagão, director of the Centre of American Studies at a Rio de Janeiro university that works at spreading information on research on the prevention and mitigation of international conflicts.

The incident has generated “a unique opportunity” for collective mediation similar to that carried out by the Contadora Group which helped bring peace to civil war-torn Central America in the 1980s, he told IPS. As a “silver lining,” the conflict could even give a boost to negotiations, he added.

This is the moment, he said, to negotiate a “broad, lasting peace” among the Andean countries that are currently in conflict, and also within Colombia itself.

Brazil, which already gained legitimacy and credibility as a peace broker in the brief border war between Ecuador and Peru in 1998, should join together with other countries, like Argentina, Chile and Peru, in the search for solutions, said the analyst.

The conflict between Colombia and Ecuador, aggravated by the hostile stance taken by Chávez, could reduce attendance at the Mar. 28-29 summit of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in Cartagena, a Caribbean resort city on Colombia’s northern coast.

Since the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia counterinsurgency and anti-drug plan got underway eight years ago, there have been many moments of tension between Colombia and Ecuador.

In 2006 and 2007, Ecuador sent formal protest letters to Colombia 10 times because of violations of Ecuadorian sovereignty during aerial spraying of coca crops by Colombia along the border between the two countries or incursions by Colombian troops over the border.

However, the tension has now reached boiling point. * With additional reporting by Kintto Lucas in Ecuador.

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