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Latin America’s Strange Bedfellows

Author: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: November 2, 2007

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Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is Washington’s closest ally in Latin America, while Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is an anti-American firebrand. Yet a recent warming between the two leaders, prompted by Venezuela’s offer to help Colombia negotiate with one of its guerilla groups, is raising eyebrows and provoking questions about the direction of U.S.-Colombia relations. “How long will the honeymoon last?” asks Poder, a Colombian business magazine, in an October report on Colombia-Venezuela relations (IHT). Given the ideological differences between the presidents of the two countries, it’s a valid question.

The shift began with Chavez’s recent offer to mediate talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, a guerrilla organization that holds several dozen hostages deep in the Colombian jungle. Analysts widely viewed the offer as an attempt by Chavez to improve his profile, and many were surprised when Uribe accepted. Attempts to hold talks have stalled thus far over security guarantees. But Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue says the deal could end up strengthening (LAT) Uribe’s image both at home and abroad. The move may be riskier for Chavez. He has the leverage to successfully mediate with the FARC, writes Mary Anastasia O’Grady in the Wall Street Journal, so if he fails to do so it will damage his credibility internationally.

Economic ties between the neighbors are also growing. Colombia is Venezuela’s second-largest trading partner, and Colombian exports to Venezuela have grown nearly 50 percent this year. On October 12, a natural-gas pipeline opened (BNAmericas) to transport Colombian natural gas to Venezuela. Uribe also has expressed interest in joining the Bank of the South, a Chavez-inspired development bank set for inauguration on November 3.

Not all of the economic activity flowing between the two countries is aboveboard. The Washington Post reports Colombian drug-lords are increasingly using Venezuela as a stopover for cocaine shipments. In the State Department’s 2007 International Narcotics Strategy Report, President Bush identified Venezuela as having “failed demonstrably” to adhere to international counternarcotics agreements. The United States continues to fund a robust counternarcotics program in Colombia, but Congress balked before approving this year’s aid, noting that after six years, “the availability and price of cocaine on America’s streets remain unchanged.”

This mild criticism pales in comparison to congressional opposition to a proposed U.S. free trade agreement with Colombia. Despite heavy lobbying from the Colombian government and intense efforts by the White House, Democratic legislators continue to raise concerns (FT) about the country’s labor and environmental practices. The White House now argues that passing the deal will weaken Chavez’s influence in the region. Some in Congress seem to agree, but others are skeptical. “Nobody likes Chávez, but I don’t think a bogeyman is going to get people excited into voting for these trade deals,” Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) tells the New York Times.

With the trade deal on the rocks, Uribe might move even closer to Chavez. There are long-standing animosities between the two countries, but the leaders do share some similarities. Chavez intends to govern indefinitely, and Uribe may run for a third term as president in 2010, although he says he has no plans to do so. Both men have moved to expand the power of the executive branch, suggests an Angus Reid analysis. Yet other observers argue there will be limits to any friendship between the two leaders and say any shift by Uribe is merely pragmatic (Miami Herald). The United States may be engaged in some pragmatic moves of its own: the new U.S. ambassador to Venezuela met with Chavez on October 29 to discuss expanding counternarcotics cooperation, an idea put forward by a Council Special Report on U.S.-Venezuela relations in 2006.

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