- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

The two most strategically important countries in Latin America — Colombia and Venezuela — are locked in a row that is on the verge of either subsiding or escalating. The dispute over a guerrilla operative surreptitiously apprehended in Venezuela and brought across the border to Colombia highlights a long-standing problem between the two countries. The crisis has implications for the United States, which depends heavily on Venezuela’s oil exports, but is a close ally of Colombia, particularly under President Alvaro Uribe.

Both administrations agree that Rodrigo Granda, a member of one of Colombia’s most powerful and murderous terrorist groups, known as the FARC, was apprehended in Caracas, whisked across the border and delivered to Colombian authorities in an operation not sanctioned by Venezuelan officials. Colombia initially said Mr. Granda was arrested on Colombian soil, but later acknowledged that it had paid Venezuelan authorities a reward for helping to bring him to Colombia.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez responded indignantly: claiming Colombia had violated its sovereignty (which of course it did) and that Washington was really behind the whole operation; recalling his ambassador in Bogota; demanding an apology from Mr. Uribe and suspending a gas-pipeline project between the two countries.

The incident is deeply embarrassing to Mr. Chavez. The Venezuelan president has been shown to have weak control over his security apparatus, and there is suspicion that some Venezuela officials harbored Mr. Granda. If that doesn’t indeed represent an infringement on Colombia’s sovereign right to security, it is hard to imagine what does.

Mr. Uribe has responded to Mr. Chavez’s accusations by claiming he will deliver to his government the names and addresses of guerrilla members living openly and comfortably in Venezuela. Colombia has long had concerns about the FARC finding refuge in Venezuela. According to a report in the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Colombia has already sent a list of seven guerrillas and their location to Venezuelan authorities. What is known is that Mr. Granda had a Venezuelan ID card, had participated in a high-profile political event the day he was apprehended, has voted in Venezuela and lived with his family in a house with a swimming pool in an exclusive neighborhood.

Mr. Chavez may well have ratcheted up his indignation as part of an attempt to mute out those incriminating details. Colombia claims, moreover, that it would not have resorted to such an underhanded approach to apprehending Mr. Granda had the Venezuelan government been a bit more obliging in extraditing him or taking some other type of action.

The diplomatic fallout and some of the details surrounding the incident are worrisome. Venezuela and Colombia, despite the deep ideological differences between their leaders, had made considerable headway in bilateral relations, most notably with the $200 million gas-pipeline project. Also, given the close U.S.-Colombian ties, any blow to Venezuelan-Colombian relations could affect the already shaky Venezuelan-American relationship. That would be a most unwelcome development, since Venezuela is already reportedly considering exporting oil to China via a pipeline through Panama — at a time when Latin America’s production of energy resources is on the wane.

The Granda crisis could be more readily resolved if the Venezuelan and Colombian presidents used, as an editorial in the publication El Tiempo recommends, “more diplomacy and less microphone” geared toward impressing domestic constituencies with bravado. Colombia clearly has some red lines that cannot be crossed in the name of diplomacy, though. Venezuela must take quick and verifiable action against FARC and other guerrilla members, and the region’s most influential leaders, such as Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, should push Mr. Chavez in that direction. These leaders have to begin cooperating effectively in security and border policing. The current Venezuelan-Colombian chill benefits no one, except perhaps the FARC.

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