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Andean Crisis: Ecuador Rallies Latin American Support Against Colombian Incursion

Fri 21st Mar 2008

Despite the agreements reached in the Rio Group summit and in the recent meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), a climate of mutual diffidence remains between Ecuador and Colombia, even though the next few days should eventually be marked by a recomposition of the relationship. In fact, while Venezuela had drawn back quite rapidly from the initial offensive in a sort of implicit acknowledgment of its excessiveness, hostilities had not immediately ceased between the other two Andean countries.

These have been maintained, on the one side, by the determination of the Ecuadorean government to obtain a wide condemnation of the violation of its sovereignty by Colombia, whereas on the other, the government of Uribe has insisted on concepts such as 'legitimate defence', and has further speculated on Correa's links with the FARC. The latter aspect has found particular echo in some newspapers, which have, in a somewhat sensationalist fashion, made use of questionable pieces of evidence.

The summit of the Rio Group, an international organisation that gathers Latin American and Caribbean states, took place only six days after the outbreak of the crisis, and managed to wind down the tones of the dispute through a common rejection (though not a wholesale condemnation) of the violation of Ecuadorean sovereignty by Colombia. The hugs and more or less forced smiles between Uribe, Chávez and Correa seemed to be the prelude to a definitive settlement of the crisis. If this has been so for Colombia and Venezuela, which promptly reestablished their diplomatic relations, Ecuador asked for a period of normalisation in order to restore mutual trust between the two governments.

The normalisation process has, however, suffered various setbacks. The OAS's mission to the border zone has been unable to come up with a single version of the facts, as various discrepancies between the Colombian and the Ecuadorean version have emerged. The report of the mission, led by the OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, has made little attempt to establish an accurate account of the events, and has only provided some vague calls to intensify binational collaboration on the border, revealing details about the armament and the type of aircrafts used in the attack, as suggested by the Colombian Ministry of Defence.

Meanwhile, the intervention of the US government done little to placate the crisis. Making reference to the laptops found in possession of Reyes, the authenticity of which evidence is still widely questioned, Sean McCormack, US State Department spokesmen, implicitly criticised Ecuador for having a permissive attitude towards the FARC. At the same time, an international media campaign against Ecuador was unleashed. Of particular resonance was an article published by the Spanish newspaper El País on March 12th. It pointed the finger at the alleged presence of eight FARC camps in Ecuador, and at the alleged connivance of local and national authorities with the guerrillas to facilitate the guerillas' free movement on Ecuadorean soil.

The article has accordingly been based on the documents coming from Reyes's computers, and on the revelations of an unnamed Colombian army officer, and another source, "Miguel", who we are told is an ex-guerrilla. The article however, apart from being grounded on aleatory and unconfirmed evidence, made no attempt to collect any testimony from the Ecuadorean side, and its style resembled more that of a premeditated j'accuse designed to substantiate the thesis of Uribe rather than that a valuable and credible piece of journalism.

Indeed, Insulza expressed its indignation with the article, which also contained a revelation from someone purporting to be an obscure officer of the OSA. Insulza bluntly considered the revelation as false, and sent a letter of protest to the director of El País. It would not be the first time that El País adopts a highly questionable position on Latin American issues: the editorial line of the last few years clearly shows an inherent and partisan bias against the more radical currents of the left that have developed in South America.

But the very best has been reached by El Tiempo, the highest circulation Colombian newspaper, which published a picture of Raul Reyes discussing with a man, identified in the caption as Gustavo Larrea, Ecuador's Interior Minister. Despite the similarity, perplexities were immediately expressed even by the Ecuadorean press, which tends to be unfriendly towards Correa. The picture started to circulate on Monday morning among the various Ambassadors that gathered in Washington for the OAS meeting, adding further nervousness to the forthcoming session. In a few hours, it emerged that the man speaking with Reyes in the picture was the Secretary General of the Argentinian Communist Party, Patricio Echegaray. El Tiempo has been forced to apologise, and to make an embarrassing step back. It is difficult not to suspect that the publication of the picture, and especially its timing, was part of a governmental strategy to win a wider support in the OSA meeting. The suspect is particularly strong in the light of the connection of the director of El Tiempo, Enrique Santos. His brother is the current Minister of Defence, while his cousin occupies the Vice-Presidency.

The final meeting of the OSA, which started on Monday 17th, was opened in the midst of strong tensions, and a real uncertainty regarding the final outcome of the session. The presence of the United States in the OSA, as opposed to the Rio group summit, made the agreement previously struck all the more precarious. Ecuador wanted to submit a document in which an open condemnation was expressed, whereas Colombia insisted on including some mention of terrorism and legitimate defence. Negotiations seemed to have reached a stalemate when Celso Amorin, Brazil's Foreign Minister, managed to accumulate consensus on a document which reasserted the position adopted in the Rio Group summit. Ecuador's diplomacy declared its victory, whereas the delegation of the United States expressed a certain dissatisfaction with the agreement. The support gathered by Ecuador in the dispute among Latin American countries proved to be decisive.
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