A recent diplomatic flare-up between Venezuela and Colombia over Venezuela's alleged harboring of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels appears unlikely to lead to a military confrontation between the unfriendly neighbors for now. Incoming Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will use the current spat to shape a firmer negotiating position in relation to Caracas when he takes office Aug. 7, but a growing debate over a U.S.-Colombian military basing deal is likely to undermine much of the credibility Santos is currently trying to build in his attempt to normalize relations with Venezuela.
South American leaders are convening in Quito, Ecuador, on July 29 for an emergency Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) session to address the latest rift in Venezuelan-Colombian relations. The drama spun up in mid-July when the administration of outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez released photographic evidence of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel camps on the Venezuelan side of the countries' shared border, where attacks in Colombia allegedly were being planned. Venezuela dismissed the Colombian claims as a U.S.-Colombian plot to invade Venezuela and broke off relations with Bogota shortly thereafter. The photographic evidence Uribe presented to the Organization of American States (OAS) appears to be the most detailed that Colombia has publicly unveiled to date to support its claims that Venezuela harbors FARC and ELN rebels. Much of the evidence was gleaned from a July 6 Colombian military operation that foiled a FARC plan organized in Venezuela to retake the strategic Montes de Maria area in Colombia. Sensing that Colombia might be able to justify military action inside Venezuela in pursuit of these rebels, Caracas reacted belligerently and somewhat dramatically. After breaking off relations with Colombia and recalling its ambassador, Venezuela threatened to cut off oil exports to the United States in the event of a U.S.-Colombian invasion — a largely empty threat, as 47 percent of Venezuela's crude exports go to the United States and such a move would harm Venezuela. Venezuelan defense officials then claimed that U.S. and Colombian troops were closing in on Venezuela, prompting Caracas to order 1,000 troops to the border. However, instead of prolonging tensions to help distract from the growing list of problems Venezuelan citizens are facing ahead of September legislative elections, Caracas apparently later felt a more urgent need to defuse the situation and lessen the chances of a military confrontation. Venezuela thus became conciliatory: The same National Guard commander who said 1,000 troops had been sent to the border denied that the border had been reinforced, and Caracas said it would present a new peace plan to mend relations with Colombia during the UNASUR session. Though Colombia now has greater justification for hot-pursuit operations and preemptive raids against FARC and ELN rebels in Venezuelan territory, it is unlikely to telegraph an imminent strike by coming forth with the evidence beforehand. After all, many of the camps identified in Venezuela by the Colombians have already likely relocated for fear of an attack, as Colombia has recently admitted. STRATFOR has not picked up any clear indications that Colombian forces might quietly be mobilizing for a strike. Nonetheless, the threat alone is enough to significantly disrupt FARC and ELN rebels now on the run, while Venezuela will have to live with the fear of a potential Colombian strike in pursuit of these rebels in the months to come. Much speculation has arisen over the timing of Colombia's accusations against Venezuela, as they came just a few weeks before Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos assumes office Aug. 7. Notably, Santos has kept quiet throughout the entire affair, saying only that his administration will further investigate the claims that Venezuela is harboring FARC rebels. While many observers, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, are describing the episode as a Colombian power struggle, with Uribe forcibly shaping Santos' agenda before he leaves office, it appears more likely that the two are setting up a scenario that will give Colombia more leverage in talks with Venezuela. Santos will not stray far from Uribe's hard-line security policies against the FARC, but he has an interest in differentiating himself from his predecessor when it comes to dealing with the explosive Colombian-Venezuelan relationship. Santos has said that he intends to mend relations with Venezuela, but he now has justification to threaten Venezuela with military action should the need arise. It is highly unlikely that Santos was caught off guard by the defense minister's unveiling of evidence at the OAS as some observers are speculating. In fact, Santos can benefit from having Uribe appear to be uncompromising and hawkish while he presents himself as a firm, level-headed peacemaker before stepping into office. But any credibility Santos gains in trying to normalize relations with Venezuela early in his presidency is likely to be short-lived. A major debate began in Colombia on July 28 over a controversial basing agreement the Uribe administration signed with the United States in late 2009. That deal entailed expanding the number of bases U.S. forces would have access to from two to seven for a variety of counternarcotics missions. Venezuela, fearful that this enhanced defense cooperation agreement between Bogota and Washington could lead to U.S. and Colombian forces operating on Venezuelan soil, froze relations with Colombia and used the basing deal as a rallying cry for other states like Ecuador and Bolivia to reject U.S. assistance. A judge in Colombia's (largely independent) Constitutional Court is now declaring the 2009 basing deal unconstitutional since the administration never sought congressional approval despite an October 2009 State Council suggestion to do so since the basing deal was a new treaty and not a renewal of a previous deal. The court began debating the issue July 28, and a vote on the treaty's alleged unconstitutionality is scheduled for Aug. 17. There is a good chance that the basing agreement could be declared unconstitutional, in which case the United States and Colombia would have a year to make adjustments to the treaty and resubmit a draft for congressional approval. The United States, meanwhile, will make a concerted effort to ensure the Santos administration follows through in the agreements made between Washington and Bogota during the Uribe administration. Colombia's counternarcotics and counterinsurgency efforts have benefited immensely from U.S. aid and Santos, as a strong believer in maintaining a tight defense relationship with the United States, is likely to come to the treaty's defense throughout the legal ordeal. Once this issue starts gaining traction in Colombia again, Venezuela is likely to take its turn in stirring up another diplomatic spat with its neighbor, regardless of the diplomatic overtures the Santos administration attempts to put forth. Little will alter the reality of Colombia's strategic need to remain closely militarily linked to the United States, forcing Venezuela to live in continued fear of Colombia's defense partnership.