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Tensions Rise in Latin America After Colombia Raid

March 4, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Since Colombia's announcement Saturday that it had killed a top FARC commander in a cross-border raid into Ecuador, both Ecuador and Venezuela have severed diplomatic ties and moved troops to the Colombian border. Experts discuss the rising tensions in the region.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And speaking of words, there’s a war of words in South America, and Margaret Warner has that.

MARGARET WARNER: On Saturday, Colombian soldiers crossed their border to raid a leftist guerilla camp in Ecuador. And, suddenly, troops and tanks were on the move, in an escalating war of words and saber-rattling pitting Colombia against neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela.

The raid killed 20 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebel group, including senior commander Raul Reyes. Colombia says it also seized Reyes’ laptop with incriminating data.

Ecuador and Venezuela responded by sending troops to their borders with Colombia and breaking diplomatic ties with Bogota.

Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, denounced the Colombian government of Alvaro Uribe.

RAFAEL CORREA, President of Ecuador (through translator): There is no justification for foreign military action on our territory, whatever the reason may be.

MARGARET WARNER: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez used the incident to once again lash out at Washington.

HUGO CHAVEZ, President of Venezuela (through translator): We will support Ecuador in any circumstance. We don’t want war, but we will not allow the North American empire, who is the master, and its sub-president, Uribe, and the Colombian oligarchy to divide, to weaken us. We will not allow it.

MARGARET WARNER: Other Latin American nations, including Brazil, also criticized Colombia’s incursion.

But in Washington, which provides Colombia billions in anti-drug trafficking aid, President Bush said he’d stand by Uribe. And he had a veiled warning for Chavez.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We firmly oppose any acts of aggression that could destabilize the region.

MARGARET WARNER: Also in Washington, the Organization of American States held an emergency meeting today to discuss the crisis.

Venezuela's Chavez inserts himself

Roger Noriega
American Enterprise Institute
I think he [Chavez] stands to be embarrassed by the evidence that has been uncovered here in this raid that links him directly in supporting militarily and financially these narco-terrorists.

MARGARET WARNER: And now we get two views of this conflict. Former Ambassador Roger Noriega held top Latin American posts in the State Department during the Bush administration. He's now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

And Miguel Tinker-Salas is a professor of Latin American studies at Pomona College. He's a dual U.S. and Venezuelan citizen.

Welcome to you both.

Roger Noriega, how did this cross-border incursion -- or why did this incursion mushroom so quickly into this three-country standoff we're seeing?

ROGER NORIEGA, American Enterprise Institute: Well, it is very clearly a serious incursion. And it has been rejected soundly by other countries in the hemisphere, but it's not the first time this sort of thing has happened, quite frankly.

And I think that the Ecuadorians were probably prepared to handle this sort of on a diplomatic level, rejecting it energetically, but finding some way to address the fact that there is this transnational presence of Colombian guerillas that operate across their border and have a lot of camps along their border.

Unfortunately, I think Chavez in Venezuela saw this as an opportunity to escalate confrontation with Colombia. And I think he stands to be embarrassed by the evidence that has been uncovered here in this raid that links him directly in supporting militarily and financially these narco-terrorists.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Tinker-Salas, is that really at the nub of this, that Hugo Chavez saw this opportunity to stir the pot?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS, Professor, Pomona College: No, I don't think so. I think that President Correa of Ecuador has made it very clear that this was an affront to Ecuadorian sovereignty. It has been condemned by Ecuador. In fact, President Correa is right now on a tour of South American countries trying to garner support for his position.

So it's clear that this is what many countries in Latin America feared, that the conflict in Colombia would become a regional conflict, drawing in the neighboring countries. It's precisely what has happened, and it's precisely what needs to be prevented.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean the neighbors feared they'd be drawn into the Colombian conflict?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: The Colombians' military and government has pursued essentially a military strategy. There was a ray of hope that there was an effort at negotiations undergone since January and the release of the hostages.

And there was a hope that, with the release of the hostages, there would be a space created in which we could come to some level of negotiation and not simply pursue a military strategy.

It's clear that with the incursion into Ecuador, the Colombian military is pursuing a military strategy, where many in Colombia and elsewhere had hoped for some negotiated settlement.

Chavez possibly aiding FARC

Miguel Tinker-Salas
Pamona College
Colombia strategically struck territory within Ecuador, 1.8 kilometers in that territory, not in hot pursuit, but rather -- seeing the photos from the area, we see that the guerillas themselves were actually probably sleeping.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you say to that?

ROGER NORIEGA: Well, it is a terrorist organization that we're talking about. Reyes is wanted for drug trafficking, for murder, for kidnapping, and for holding hostages.

Now, Chavez has tried to create a smokescreen now after this attack, but he can't conceal the fact that these folks are holding hundreds of Colombians hostage. And the Colombians never authorized either the Ecuadorians and haven't authorized the Venezuelans to do any negotiation on their behalf with the FARC. So...

MARGARET WARNER: Now you're talking about that Chavez did play a role in trying to negotiate for the release.

Let me just clarify with Mr. Noriega first, and I'll get right back to you, Professor.

Just explain to our viewers, you're talking about the fact that Chavez was involved in negotiating for the release of some of these Colombian hostages. But is that at the root of the accusation that he's, quote, "funded" the FARC or is there more evidence?

ROGER NORIEGA: There is evidence, apparently -- it will have to be evaluated -- from this raid that reflects a commitment by Chavez to pay $300 million to this terrorist organization. And for that, the Colombians are saying, "We're going to take this evidence to the International Criminal Court and Chavez has to be accountable for supporting these terrorist groups."

MARGARET WARNER: Professor, do you -- is there good evidence that, in fact, Hugo Chavez has been giving not just aid and comfort, but perhaps money to the FARC, that is a rebel group dedicated to the overthrow of his neighbor, Colombia?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: I think that that has to be independently confirmed. The Colombian military in the past has been want to make extreme declarations about death plots against Uribe, death plots against President Bush when he visited in 2004, and they've all fizzled out.

So the assertion that somehow they found computers, the assertion that somehow they found evidence, even worse of uranium elements, within the FARC trying to purchase those materials, needs to be confirmed. Otherwise, they've seemed to be part of a smokescreen that would take away attention from the fact that Colombia intervened in Ecuadorian territory.

I think we need to bring it back to -- that's the central issue here for the countries of Latin America and for the countries of the region. Colombia strategically struck territory within Ecuador, 1.8 kilometers in that territory, not in hot pursuit, but rather -- seeing the photos from the area, we see that the guerillas themselves were actually probably sleeping.

So this was, in fact, not hot pursuit, but actually a strategic attack of Ecuadorian territory by Colombia.

Serious conflict, but war unlikely

Miguel Tinker-Salas
Pamona College
I don't think that these are simply minor concerns, but very important considerations on the part of an internal conflict becoming regionalized and drawing in the neighboring countries.

MARGARET WARNER: It is interesting, Ambassador, that there were even allies of the United States in Latin America who joined in criticizing Colombia. Is there widespread concern among these countries or great sensitivity about cross-border incursions, and in particular, obviously, military ones like this?

ROGER NORIEGA: Yes, there is, very clearly. I just spent the afternoon at the OAS, and there was widespread expressions of concern and some condemnation of the Colombian action.

But this isn't a question of this singular act, the likes of which have occurred over many years in this part of the world, drawing other countries into this conflict.

The very fact that other countries, neighboring countries of Colombia, aid and abet and let the FARC operate with impunity in their territory means they're in the middle of the conflict. And the fact that Colombia has to take this unilateral action, which I think is admittedly regrettable, reflects that other countries have to step up to the plate and do their part.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both -- and I'll start with you, Professor -- to what degree is this a genuine regional conflict involving Colombia and Ecuador, and perhaps Venezuela, versus how much or to what degree is it really a proxy struggle between the United States and Chavez?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: Obviously, the U.S. has interests in the region. The U.S. has been supporting the presidency of Colombia, Uribe, has invested billions in Plan Colombia, intended against narco-trafficking, but also very clearly used against intelligence against guerillas. So there is an element of that undoubtedly.

But the great concern that the countries of the region fear is that they be drawn into this conflict, that there's a regionalization of a conflict. President Correa has referred to we have to prevent a Middle East occurring in Latin America.

So I don't think that these are simply minor concerns, but very important considerations on the part of an internal conflict becoming regionalized and drawing in the neighboring countries.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that this is a for-real conflict, not just U.S. versus Venezuela?

ROGER NORIEGA: Well, I think a lot -- some of the escalation is bombast driven by Chavez. But this is an opportunity to educate the world, really, about what Colombia is up against when 120 camps operating where the FARC operates, in other countries, by these narco-terrorists, have to be attacked.

MARGARET WARNER: And, very briefly, like in three words, could this turn into a shooting war, Roger Noriega?

ROGER NORIEGA: I doubt it very seriously. It would be regrettable. It's unnecessary.

MARGARET WARNER: And Professor?

MIGUEL TINKER-SALAS: I think it's also very regrettable. And I think we'll try to find -- should find a regional solution to this problem, and one in which, unfortunately, the U.S. will play very little role.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it on that provocative note. Miguel Tinker-Salas and Roger Noriega, thank you both.