By Ken Kelley
I was surprised during my trip to Colombia last month when my seemingly enlightened Bogotá cab driver, who had been telling me about his support for Green Party presidential candidate Antanas Mockus in the upcoming elections, suddenly shifted gears and announced that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was loco.
The mental state of its leader was not the only issue the driver had with the neighboring country, and he added that money for Venezuela’s social programs came not from oil wealth but rather from proceeds Chávez received as part of an international drug smuggling ring. Among the co-conspirators in the ring, I learned, was ex-President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, ousted in a coup last summer which according to the cabbie had been justified based on the fact that Zelaya was also loco.
When I asked whether cocaine seizures on the Caribbean coast of Colombia were an indication that politicians of other nationalities might be involved in the drug trade, as well, the driver laughed: “They’re all into it.” His opposition to chavismo meanwhile did not appear to interfere with his opinion that poor people who supported current Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos, the presidential candidate from Uribe’s National Unity Party, had been brainwashed.
As for non-drug-related Colombian accusations against Chávez, these included Uribe’s response to the April arrest in Venezuela of eight Colombians on spying charges, which the Colombian leader dismissed as simply a form of persecution “for being Colombian”.
Because diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in 2009 after Colombia signed a pact allowing U.S. access to seven Colombian military bases, Uribe asked the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to intercede on behalf of the arrested Colombians, claiming a clear violation of human rights. Ironically, several days after Uribe made that appeal, the IACHR released a report which again placed Colombia, along with Venezuela, on a blacklist for human rights violations of its own citizens.
Chávez for his part alleged that the detainees had photographed military and electrical installations, and—possibly to deflect blame for the frequent blackouts Venezuela has suffered in recent months—hinted that they may have been involved in sabotaging the national electrical grid. When two more Colombians were then arrested just inside Venezuelan territory, the Colombian government issued a warning to its citizens advising against travel to Venezuela, citing as well the 12 Colombians still being held in Caracas on charges of belonging to a paramilitary group.
The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry has said that the strained relationship between the two countries will continue at least until August, when a new Colombian president is sworn in. One contender for the job, Uribe’s candidate Santos, ignited a war of words during an April 17 presidential debate, when he said he was “proud” of his decision as Defense Minister in 2008 to authorize the cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) No. 2 Raúl Reyes. Santos also left open the possibility of a repeat attack on FARC bases in neighboring countries, one of which is of course Venezuela, where Uribe claims safe haven is given to the guerrillas.
Santos’ announcement led Chávez to label him “a threat to the region”, with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa adding that he felt sorry for “those who play the little emperor and want to convert Latin America into the new Middle East”. Santos subsequently appeared to downplay the possibility of future cross-border raids but charged Chávez and Correa with trying to interfere in Colombia’s elections in order to thwart his presidential aspirations. He then took aim at his chief rival, Green Party candidate Mockus, who has termed such raids “unacceptable”; claiming a Mockus win could lead Colombia down an unknown path and prompt a return to its troubled past, he attempted to link him to those “outside the country that would like to see” such an outcome.
Perhaps due to Mockus’ strong performance in televised debates and a growing public fatigue with the various scandals that have tainted the Uribe administration, Santos has seen his once commanding lead in the polls disappear, and a poll released on May 6 by the National Consulting Center showed Mockus with 38 percent of the vote to Santos’ 34. More importantly, the polls show Mockus beating Santos in a runoff if no one wins a majority on May 30.
U.S. Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela joined Uribe in telling Colombia’s neighbors not to meddle in the elections after Chávez referred to Santos as a “wolf dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood”. It remains to be seen whether a Mockus victory in the presidential elections will prove to be the fairytale ending that some are expecting.