Amid the crisis in Japan and conflict in Libya, President Obama is scheduled to take a trip to South America this weekend. The President undoubtedly has a lot on his foreign policy plate, but while he's in the region the administration ought to give pay some needed attention to what's going on between Venezuela and Colombia.
Thanks to efforts by the Colombian government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are on the defensive. Once the most powerful insurgent group in the Western Hemisphere, the FARC’s army controlled large swaths of land across the country and directly threatened the government’s stability by the late 1990s. Though the group maintains the ability to attack the government at any given moment, the group is on the run in remote portions of the Andean jungle. Unfortunately, Colombia’s successful efforts have not been matched by neighboring Venezuela.
As Colombia’s army and police clashed with FARC forces over the past decade, much of the group’s senior leaders found refuge in Venezuela. By 2010, the Colombian government amassed evidence of 75 FARC camps harboring 1,500 rebels on Venezuelan soil. But despite claims from Bogota, the international community took little action.
That was until 2008 when Colombian Special Forces recovered over 30,000 word documents and 200,000 photographs from a FARC camp in Ecuador. Later verified by Paris based Interpol, details and communiqué from the documents revealed critical information pertaining to Venezuela’s ongoing relationship with the terrorist group. In fact, contents revealed “an alleged Venezuelan plan to loan the FARC $250 million,” while other correspondence illuminate Venezuelan attempts to connect the terrorist organization with an international arms dealer from Panama. Apart from the documents, Colombian forces also discovered the FARC in possession of anti-tank rocket launchers originally sold to the Venezuelan military by Sweden.
The following year, Colombian officials uncovered communications revealing FARC attempts to purchase surface-to-air missiles in Venezuela. According to a review of the documents by The New York Times, “the effort was facilitated by Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, the director of Venezuela’s police intelligence agency until his removal last month, and by Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, a former Venezuelan interior minister who served as Mr. Chávez’s official emissary to the FARC in negotiations to free hostages last year.”
By July 2009, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded that “Venezuela has extended a lifeline to Colombian illegal armed groups by providing them with significant support and safe haven along the border.”
Adding Venezuela to the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism seems out of the question – the United States remains Venezuela’s largest oil-trading partner, and the last time a country was added to the list was 1993. That is not to say the United States should remain idol. This month President Obama will travel to South America and meet newly elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to discuss greater economic cooperation. The conversation should not stop there.
The president should take advantage of this rare opportunity to discuss Venezuela’s continued support of the FARC. The challenge proved too much for former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In his eight years in office, the president showed little (if any) interest in pressing Mr. Chavez on the FARC at the risk of harming Brazil’s increasingly lucrative economic relationship with Venezuela. With a new leader comes a new opportunity. President Rousseff has warmed to President Obama and Washington, and as Latin America’s largest economy, Brazil holds tremendous clout in the region. Next month’s visit can set the foundation for greater regional leadership by both Brazil and the United States.
In 2009, The Washington Post asked a simple question: “Will there be any consequence for Venezuela's material support for Colombian insurgents?” Sixteen months later, the answer is no. Chavez continues to harbor this terrorist group while the United States and others happily buy his oil. It is time for the United States and the region to send a signal that such behavior is not acceptable.
Patrick Christy is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.