Colombia, Venezuela & Ecuador: Crisis Ends With Hugs, Handshakes and Applause

(IPS) – Hugs and handshakes between the presidents of Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela put an end to a week-long political and diplomatic crisis that threatened to escalate into a regional conflict.

The Rio Group, a mechanism of political consultation and coordination created by eight democratic governments in the region two decades ago, experienced its finest moment ever on Friday, first with a fierce debate among the presidents involved in the conflict, and later with their decision to put an end to the crisis triggered by Colombia’s Mar. 1 bombing raid on a rebel camp in Ecuador, and to re-establish diplomatic ties.

It was a personal triumph for Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández, who hosted this week’s 20th Rio Group summit and who, in the middle of the debate, picked up on the signals sent out by the participants indicating that they preferred agreement over confrontation.

Paradoxically, it was one of the most outspoken critics of the system of Rio Group summits, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who opened the door to an agreement while his counterparts from Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, on one hand, and from Ecuador, Rafael Correa, and Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, on the other, traded verbal broadsides.

"It is time for reflection and action, we are still on time to stop a whirlpool that we could regret, and not only us, but our people, children and communities, for who knows how long," said the Venezuelan leader.

"Let’s stop this. Let’s be cool-headed and act like rational people, because if we continue, this will keep heating up," said Chávez.

Fernández took it from there, calling for hugs.

Uribe stood up and walked over to a reluctant Correa, and they shook hands. The Colombian leader then went over to shake Chávez’s hand, and finally did the same with Ortega.

Later the four leaders embraced their host and the two female presidents in the group, Cristina Fernández of Argentina and Michelle Bachelet of Chile.

The conflict broke out when the Colombian military bombed a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) camp in northern Ecuador on Mar. 1, killing the group’s international spokesman, Raúl Reyes, and at least 20 other guerrillas.

Ecuador broke off relations with Colombia, moved troops to its border, and demanded an apology and a promise that Bogotá would never again make an incursion into its territory.

Venezuela, for its part, closed its embassy in Bogotá and also mobilised troops and tanks to the Colombian border.

The conflict further escalated when Colombia claimed to have discovered, on a laptop belonging to Reyes found in the camp, documents and evidence of alleged ties between the FARC and the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela.

Uribe went so far as to say that he would ask the International Criminal Court to bring genocide charges against Chávez for supposedly giving financial and logistical support to the FARC.

The Organisation of American States (OAS) Permanent Council met on Wednesday and approved a resolution that stated that Bogotá violated Ecuador’s national sovereignty but stopped short of condemning Colombia. It also established a commission to carry out a fact-finding mission, and scheduled a meeting of foreign ministers for Mar. 17.

Nicaragua not only backed Ecuador, but expressed its own criticism of Colombia in the context of a long-standing sea border dispute between Bogotá and Managua, which is being considered by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

And on Thursday, Ortega broke off ties with Colombia.

The Rio Group summit in Santo Domingo, whose focus was the energy and environmental crisis in the Caribbean, thus became the scenario for the leaders to discuss the situation face to face.

Correa demanded a more straightforward apology, without conditions, from Colombia, said he was in favour of peace, and staunchly denied that he was a friend or ally of the FARC, stressing that "this conflict burdens us with the cost of maintaining 11,000 men guarding the border, more than 100 million dollars, and poses a risk to the lives and property of Ecuadorians."

Uribe described the difficulties of dealing with leftist and far-right irregular armed groups, said the FARC are terrorists because they are not fighting a dictatorship but a democratic government, and, as he had done earlier this week, apologised for carrying out the bombing raid without previously informing the Correa administration.

Chávez, meanwhile, who in the past has called Uribe a "pawn of the (U.S.) empire," was more restrained than usual.

"Get it out of your head that this is a plan of the ’empire.’ My choices and my actions are the rebellion of a nation against violence," said Uribe.

Correa said there was no reason for Uribe to turn to an international court, stating that "these hands are not tainted with blood," and called for the creation of "an international force to control the border, which Colombia won’t or can’t control with its militaristic policies."

In the midst of the war of words, Argentine President Fernández said that "illegal means should not be combated with more illegal means," urged that international law be upheld, and deplored the vehement style of some of her fellow presidents, who laughed at her quip that "today we women have been more rational than some men."

But in the end, they all yielded to President Leonel Fernández’s plea to leave the crisis behind and to show their people that they had done so, by giving each other a hug.

"I accept, I am a man without an ego and I assume my responsibility," said Uribe.

"With the commitment to never attack a sister nation again and by asking forgiveness, we can consider this extremely serious incident resolved," said Correa.

As the presidents shook hands and embraced, the summit participants broke out in applause.

Over the microphones could be heard the exchange in which Uribe and Ortega asked each other to keep their ships and fishing boats to the east and west, respectively, of the 82nd meridian, which is the de facto sea border until the court in The Hague hands down its final, binding decision.

When they returned to their seats, Ortega announced that he was re-establishing ties with Colombia, and Uribe said he would not accuse Chávez in the International Court of Justice.