Santos: A Different Gamble with Chavez?

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On August 7, an important chapter in Colombian-Venezuelan relations that has coincided with the presidencies of Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez will come to an end.  These last eight years have been a rollercoaster, with moments of great tension but also occasional pragmatism. Juan Manuel Santos will no doubt put his imprint on this crucial bilateral relationship.  It is already clear that the president-elect will make an effort to avoid the personal confrontations -- sometimes tinged with ideology -- that often characterized the Uribe-Chavez relationship.   Instead, he is expected to pursue a more sophisticated course that seeks to minimize risks for both countries and insure that future disputes do not escalate out of control. Santos’s selection of Maria Angela Holguin, the highly professional former ambassador to Venezuela, as the next foreign minister, shows that Colombia hopes to engage diplomatically with Chavez. At the same time, however, the fundamental issue that was highlighted with Colombia’s presentation at the Organization of American States on July 22 will not go away.  Mounting accusations of the FARC presence in Venezuelan territory – with the acquiescence if not support of the Chavez government – are very disturbing and should be investigated. One can question the timing of the Uribe government’s request to the OAS -- and even the strength of all the evidence presented -- but that should not detract from the nature of the problem and the need to deal with it seriously and within a multilateral framework.   Colombia was right to bring its evidence to the OAS, and it is fitting that UNASUR has convened a special meeting today in Quito to deal with this pressing issue. But despite the impetus for a multilateral regional solution to the problem, Latin American governments will be reluctant to take a strong stand on this issue, not only because Colombia’s foreign policies have politically isolated it from its neighbors in recent years, but also because these neighbors will be inclined to see how the Santos administration decides to handle this challenge.   In addition, Chavez has predictably and cleverly shifted the focus of attention from the FARC question to how to reduce the heightened tensions between Colombia and Venezuela.    Several regional leaders have volunteered to mediate in the dispute, but it is unclear how many of them will offer to address the FARC-related charges that provoked the latest bilateral row. Santos has no illusions about the FARC presence beyond Colombia’s borders, but he appears ready to try another approach to resolve the problem.  His instinct, it seems, is to rely more heavily on diplomacy than Uribe did over the past eight years.  The notion is to build broader political support throughout the region to overcome Colombia’s relative solitude and to convince Chavez that the FARC are a problem for him that could eventually increase his political vulnerability.  Skillful diplomacy would seek to appeal to Chavez’s dominant interest in political self-preservation and encourage him to cooperate with Colombia and other regional neighbors to end the prolonged armed conflict.  For Santos, it would be hard to imagine a sweeter legacy. Of course, there is no guarantee that Santos’s new tack with Chavez will succeed.  Much will depend on the economy and domestic politics in both countries, as well as Chavez’s shifting calculations and moods. But there is much weariness with the Uribe/Chavez dance and a desire to try something different.  With Santos in charge, there is an opportunity to strike the right balance between hard-headed realism and a kind of diplomacy that is more sensitive to regional and international public opinion.

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