Friday, January 14, 2011

Colombia: Foreign Policy in Flux

International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

Colombia's improved ties with Venezuela and neighbors to its south are just a few signs of the understated foreign policy shifts implemented by recently elected President Juan Manuel Santos - changes that may have positive implications for regional security and cooperation across Latin America.

By Eliot Brockner for ISN Insights

In the waning days of 2010, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos issued a statement thanking Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for his "growing support in all areas, including security". The announcement came on the heels of a decision by Caracas to extradite Nilson Alvin Teran Ferreira - aka Tulio, a leader of the Northern War Front of the National Liberation Army (ELN) - to Valledupar, the capital of Cesar Department, which shares a border with Venezuela.

This is just one of many acts of mutual cooperation between Chavez and President Santos, who took office in August 2010 after serving as Colombia's minister of defense. Santos immediately prioritized closing the sizeable rift that had grown between Colombia and Venezuela under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. As recently as July 2010, Venezuela and Colombia cut diplomatic ties after Uribe formally accused Chavez of harboring Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels in Venezuela. The accusations led to a breakdown in relations that fell squarely to Santos to resolve when he assumed the presidency in August.

By many counts, he has exceeded expectations.

Less than a month into his presidency, Santos succeeded in connecting with Chavez in a way that Uribe had not been able to do during his eight years in office. An August meeting between the two presidents paved the way for numerous conciliatory gestures that have led to promises of restoring dialogue, trade and normal diplomatic relations. This normalization has been demonstrated through promises of humanitarian aid to confront an especially harsh winter that has left hundreds of thousands homeless in the two countries.

"You have to give Santos credit for resolving the conflict with Venezuela", Retired Colombian Army Brigadier General Enrique Peña told ISN Insights from Bogotá, adding that the conflict between the two countries had been largely one between presidents.

"I think there is a compromise of mutual collaboration between the two presidents now that there wasn't before. There is an understanding between the two presidents to work together. Any threat of conflict with Venezuela has been completely thrown out the window."

Whether these gestures resulting in closer ties will translate into improved border security and collaboration between military forces remains unclear. "There won't be any military collaboration between Colombia and Venezuela", says Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security at The Washington Office on Latin America, a policy-advocacy organization.

"A committee is meeting, and this does reduce the likelihood that a small skirmish could lead to something bigger. But the two countries do not have a history of military collaboration," Isacson said, adding, however, that closer ties will lead to an increase in bilateral trade: "Venezuela needs goods that Colombia makes."

Colombian exports to Venezuela fell from $6.09 billion in 2008, to $4.05 billion in 2009 and further to $1.4 billion in 2010, according to data from the Colombian National Administrative Statistics Department (DANE).

Bogota-Washington relations

What impact the Colombian-Venezuelan rapprochement will have on Colombia's relations with Washington remains to be seen. The US reaction has been cautiously reserved, although many analysts believe the Obama administration is happy to have the two nations cooperating. Senior US and Colombian officials have said that closer Colombian-Venezuelan ties will not impact the strong strategic partnership between Colombia and the US.

Still, underlying issues with the US remain unresolved. Santos decided not to submit to Congress a controversial Defense Cooperation Agreement between the two countries, and the US has made clear that the long-pending Free Trade Agreement between them is not a top priority. "The United States is Colombia's major trading partner and is most interested in Colombia in terms of regional security. If Colombia distances itself from the United States, it puts that [bi-lateral relationship] at risk. Colombia must be a bit cautious [not to negatively affect] relations with the United States", says Rafael Nieto, a political consultant.

Bogota-Brasilia…and environs

In addition to diplomatic ripples on the Bogota-Washington front, closer ties with Venezuela appear to have impacted on several other regional relationships as well. Indeed, Foreign Minister Angela Holguin told the Colombian press in November that closer ties with Venezuela have improved relations with Colombia's Latin American neighbors - particularly regional powerhouse, Brazil.

Santos' first foreign trip as president was to Brazil, which analysts believe is a sign that he is looking to improve relations with South America's most powerful country. To that end, he nominated Maria Mejia, a retired diplomat and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, as a candidate for the position of secretary-general of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

It is not clear whether Mejia is the right choice for the job, says Nieto. "It is smart of Santos to want to get closer to UNASUR and its southern neighbors, but nominating Mejia is not a good idea. Her candidacy is poorly timed and unlikely to be successful."

Indeed, relations between Colombia and Brazil have assumed an increased importance in Colombian foreign policy under Santos. This may have as much to do with politics - throughout Latin America, counternarcotics assistance from Brazil is considered less politically risky than from the US - as strategy: Brazil recently announced a decision to provide counternarcotics assistance to Bolivia, a move that was well-received in Washington. The negative impact of the drug trade on Brazil - from violence in its cities to corruption in the interior - combined with the country's large military and ample economic resources make it the most likely candidate to form strategic counternarcotics partnerships with drug-producing nations.

There have been allegations of FARC presence along the Brazil-Colombia border, which if confirmed, could lead to increased cooperation between two of the most powerful militaries in the region. This has already begun. In October, Brazil, Colombia and Peru announced a plan for joint military action along their shared borders. Brazil is also the largest exporter of cocaine, mostly from Bolivia, to Europe. Evidence that some of the Amazon waterways are being used to transport cocaine from Colombia to Brazil would likely accelerate this cooperation. Closer ties between Bogota and Brasilia is an important step to improved regional security. South America has been successful at organizing large blocks of leaders, with UNASUR being the most salient example. However, close, strategic bi-lateral ties between countries may prove more effective in bringing about social, economic and security reforms.

In addition to Brazil, Santos has also pursued closer ties with Panama and Ecuador, and made one of his first tours as president to Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Peru.

The Washington Post recently called Santos "A new breed of diplomat", citing his "chameleon-like ability to adapt to the current political mood." It is a skill he will need to harness in order to adapt to the unique demands of each country. Santos has already been very successful at normalizing ties between Colombia and its neighbors, as well as paving the way for future regional security and cooperation initiatives.

But successfully attacking multinational crime will require close collaboration with other countries, particularly with Central American nations under increased pressure from drug cartels with international reach. The Santos administration's work to bridge the political gap between Colombia and its neighbors to the South has been an important step, and Colombia has regained some of its credibility with Latin American neighbors lost under Uribe. But a look north to Central America will also be necessary for improved regional security.

Eliot Brockner is a Latin America analyst at iJET Intelligent Risk Systems. Based in Washington, DC, he covers security, politics, and diplomacy in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the blog Latin American Thought.