Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS: Preventing Spread of Colombian Conflict

Estrella Gutiérrez

CARACAS, Mar 17 1999 (IPS) - Venezuela’s active role in the Colombian peace process is meant to prevent the conflict in that country “from becoming an excuse to internationalize the war,” according to minister without portfolio, Jose Vicente Rangel.

In an interview with IPS, Rangel said “there are those who are thinking of internationalizing the conflict in Colombia, and this would ignite violence throughout the region, with unpredictable consequences.”

The violence in Colombia and new measures that Caracas is taking as facilitator of the peace process, were discussed last week in the first formal get-together between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Colombian counterpart, Andres Pastrana.

Rangel, a veteran leader of the left wing and one of the principals opinionmakers of Venezuela, has been a minister in the Chavez government since Feb. 2 , when it came to power after defeating traditional politicians and political parties.

Rangel explained that the Colombian conflict “worries us enormously…if it is not stopped, in no time it will become a highly explosive situation.”

“Already it is commonplace to say that, sooner or later, the war in Colombia is a war in Venezuela and that peace in Colombia is peace in Venezuela,” said the minister referring to the extensive and active border of 2,219 kms – an active front for Colombian guerrilla groups.

Rangel said that groups thinking of internationalizing the conflict “fall outside of the jurisdiction of the Colombian and Venezuelan governments, but force us both to think very seriously about the immediate future.”

Fear of an internationalization of the conflict has been nourished by a growing perception in diplomatic quarters in Latin America that the United States will intervene if Pastrana’s peace effort collapses.

Chavez repeatedly has said he would go wherever asked and do all he can do to achieve peace in Colombia. He attended a January meeting with Pastrana and Cuban President Fidel Castro in Havana and sent a delegation that same month to the opening of the dialogue with the Revolutionary Armed Force. (FARC)

Last month, Caracas hosted two meetings between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), another armed insurrectional group.

“We are acting in good faith as facilitators of this process but we aren’t a part of it…we don’t want to create any suspicions and we are recognized as the sole intermediary to the government and to the State of Colombia,” Rangel stressed.

“At the same time, we say that we cannot have an attitude of disrespect towards the guerrillas, because it is not possible to obtain peace in Colombia without reaching agreement with both sides of the conflict.”

Among signs that set off alarms in the region over internationalization, was Peru’s move in sending troops to the border with Colombia after Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori returned from a visit to the United States last month.

Fujimori’s claim of the need to avoid any penetration by “Colombian narcoterrorism,” into Peru was taken by some quarters as another indication of possible action by Washington, if there was no progress in the peace dialogue.

Rangel preferred not to speculate on such a possibility but admitted that “the possibility of establishing bases in neighboring countries to confront a possible complication in Colombia worries us tremendously.”

For this reason, news this week from Lima that Peru would not accept the establishment of a U.S. military base on its territory – to replace the one being given up in Panama this year – was encouraging.

“We too would not agree (to host a base),” Rangel stressed, leaving the question open as to whether Washington had made a formal request to Venezuela.

Rangel, who ran for president on two occasions but remained outside politics for 15 years, said that “I don’t dare to say that there is a strategy already outlined,” in the direction of an eventual internationalization of the conflict.

“But as an observer, I can say that there is a growing concern about U.S. actions – strengthened by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Panama Canal Zone,” he declared.

He emphasized that “for some U.S. strategists this means a weakening of control in a region viewed as a “hot zone”, and this is a motive for concern.”

On the progress of the peace process with FARC rebels – that began Jan 7 but were postponed until April after 12 days – Rangel said that “my personal impression is that the guerrillas have not only the military initiative, but also the political one.”

“My sense is that, until now, the guerrillas practically have set the rules of the game of war and now they have taken the initiative in the peace process,” he said.

The reason for this is “because they move more easily in the political terrain, they are bringing up initiatives.”

For example, “when Chavez said that he is ready to meet with the guerrilla leaders and with Pastrana, immediately the guerrillas declared that Manuel Marulanda (commander of the FARC) was ready to meet with the president.”

“It’s a skillful political move, upon which the Colombian government will have to take the initiative,” he commented.

But the minister underscored that “what we must do is not judge but register what is taking place and write down the positive aspects of which ever initiatives are formulated.”

“While there is a chance for dialogue, we are going to continue to support that process,” and that is something that “President Pastrana knows and appreciates,” he said decisively. (FIN-IPS-eg-ip-la-mk-99)

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