The rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages who had been held for years by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas marks more than a turning point in Colombia’s long war against its drug-running, Marxist guerrillas. It also confirms the emergence of a new troika of Latin American leaders — Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Mexican President Felipe Calderon — who are set on finishing off Latin America’s destabilizing drug cartels and guerrilla movements, as well as isolating the region’s demagogic upstart, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Uribe’s status as one of Latin America’s historic leaders was assured even before the rescue of Betancourt and the other hostages. Uribe won an unprecedented re-election two years ago with an absolute majority in the first round of the vote. But it is Uribe’s resolve not to negotiate with the FARC over kidnappings, and instead to pursue relentlessly the armed insurgency that murdered his father. In the process, he transformed a country that was in the grip of drug barons and on the verge of becoming a failed state.
The professionalism of Colombia’s armed forces, coupled with Uribe’s popularity and a growing economy, has delivered, for the first time in three decades, normality to Colombia’s cities and, increasingly, peace and the rule of law to much of its vast jungle regions. Uribe’s relentlessness has brought on waves of defections from the FARC, which is now down to 9,000 guerrillas from a peak of 16,000 in 2001. Indeed, many FARC defectors now prefer to fight for their cause at the ballot box under the new left-wing Polo Alternativo Democratico.
But the benefits of Uribe’s apparent defeat of the FARC extend far beyond Colombia. The hostage rescue has also forced Chavez, still recovering from his failed power-grab referendum of last year, onto the defensive. The Uribe-Lula-Calderon axis appears set on keeping him there.
Chavez is the loser not only because he has provided the FARC moral support (he once described them as “belligerents,” not terrorists), but also because it is believed he has been providing the FARC covert military support. That backing appeared to be part of Chavez’s “Bolivarian” socialist revolution, which has used Venezuela’s petrodollars to bankroll left-wing governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Cuba in the hope of building up a regional anti-US alliance.
There were serious grounds over the last three years to believe that Latin America was going through one of its regular bouts of left-wing destabilization, given the rise of Bolivian President Evo Morales, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, and their ringleader, Chavez. But the recent worldwide increase in commodity prices has meant that the traditional regional powerhouses of Chile, Brazil, and Mexico have experienced economic booms of their own.
This made it easier for Lula in particular to buck his socialist allies and distance himself from Chavez, having as recently as this March backed Chavez following Colombia’s brief incursion into Ecuador that killed FARC Commander Raul Reyes. Calderon’s uncompromising hard line on drug dealers in Mexico, an unrelenting offensive that follows the precedent set by Uribe in dealing with the FARC, has also been helped because economic growth has muted domestic opposition.
The emerging Uribe-Lula-Calderon troika has geo-strategic influence because things have started to change in Cuba ever since former Cuban president Fidel Castro formally handed over the presidency to his brother, Raul. Latin America is obsessed with this transition, and Uribe, Calderon, and Lula have no intention of letting Chavez lead the way.
Last January, Lula visited the island with a string of leading Brazilian businessmen and signed trade and investment deals worth US$1 billion. Calderon, reversing his predecessor’s policy of speaking out against the lack of human rights in Cuba, has restored Mexico’s traditional close ties. Earlier this year, Mexico’s foreign minister renegotiated US$400 million of debt on which Cuba had defaulted. Cultural exchanges have increased, and Calderon is expected to visit Havana soon.
This closer embrace of Cuba mixes self-interest with calculation. Everywhere in Latin America, Cuba is a domestic political issue. Some commentators argue that in repairing relations, Uribe, Calderon and Lula hope to mollify their left-wing opponents. Moreover, for both Uribe and Calderon, instability in Cuba could pose a domestic security threat.
Both Brazil and Mexico see business opportunities on the island, especially since Raul Castro has already made Cuba more open to foreign investment. But perhaps the most important reason for improving relations with Cuba is one that none of the three leaders will say in public: They see closer ties as a way of balancing the influence of Chavez, who has replaced the Soviet Union as Cuba’s main provider of aid.
Unlike Chavez, Fidel’s fawning disciple, Uribe, Calderon and Lula are quietly supporting political liberalization in Cuba, and believe that Raul Castro also worries about Cuba’s dependence on Venezuela, as well as on China. Some in the administration of US President George W. Bush accept this argument, saying that they are happy to see Latin American democracies seeking influence where the US cannot. Latin America, it seems, is no longer held hostage by its demagogues and guerrillas.
Charles Tannock is the British Conservative foreign affairs spokesman in the European Parliament and led a delegation of center-right members of the parliament to observe the 2006 presidential election in Colombia.
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