S. America Border Talks Serves as Peaceful Model

SHORTLY after Peru and Ecuador went to war in January over a border dispute, a regional summit provided an opportunity for the presidents of the two countries to talk.

But Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori snubbed the meeting, and relations sank further until a cease-fire earlier this month.

Colombia and Venezuela also have a longtime border dispute -- one that seems a candidate for a serious clash, since it involves territory known to contain rich oil deposits.

But the two countries have for decades approached their difference with dialogue rather than belligerence. Although the border has yet to be settled, officials on both sides say the ''make talk, not war'' approach is a model in a continent where 19th-century territorial disputes still threaten 21st-century cooperative progress.

''Communication with Colombia over our common border is easy, regular, and flexible enough to address new problems as they come up,'' says Miguel Angel Burelli Rivas, Venezuela's foreign minister. ''South America's multiple border disputes are typical of developing countries, but we are determined to approach our case as countries developing together.''

South America counts more than a dozen territorial disputes, virtually all the legacy of three centuries of colonial rule. Borders mattered little when the territory belonged to the same distant colonizer, and often were left unmarked. But as nations replaced colonies, borders took on new importance.

The Venezuela-Colombia conflict centers on the oil-rich Gulf of Venezuela separating the two countries in the north. The prickly pear is how airspace, waters, and subsoil should be divided.

But in recent weeks, a new problem has arisen along the sparsely populated southern border: Colombian guerrillas have stepped up incursions into Venezuela. The guerrillas have for years crossed the border to steal cars, arms, and other goods. But in February, they attacked a border post, killing eight Venezuelan soldiers. Several other attacks followed.

Last week, the countries dispatched their defense ministers to discuss the problem. Venezuela's proposal that its troops pursue border-crossing guerrillas back into Colombian territory was not well-received in Bogota, but joint border patrols are being studied.

''The guerrillas are trying to provoke a conflict between our two countries that would serve their purposes, but neither side is going to let that happen,'' says Mr. Burelli Rivas.

Colombian officials agree that guerrilla incursions seriously challenge bilateral relations but say cooperation is the only response the countries will consider. ''We have been careful to make sure that border problems never became the focus of our relationship, and that will continue in the future,'' says Dario Ruiz Tinoco, director of territorial affairs with the Colombian Foreign Ministry.

Officials on both sides say each country has become their second-most-important trading partner for non-petroleum products. And cross-border migration has brought them closer together -- despite creating other problems.

''With further growth in bilateral trade and integration, the conflict between us will diminish,'' says Pompeo Marquez, president of Venezuela's National Border Council, which regularly discusses border issues. Venezuelan officials say they oppose arbitration in the Gulf of Venezuela dispute. They feel their country had a ''bad experience'' with British arbitration of territory it still claims in Guyana.

Mr. Ruiz warns against simply expecting time to solve the border problem, however. ''It's been with us since 1830,'' when the two countries became independent, he says. ''So I'm not sure expecting it to decrease in importance until it disappears is realistic.

''Maybe in 100 or 200 years we will follow the European [Union] example,'' he adds. ''But even though we have a perfect record of avoiding clashes, that's still a long time to wait.''

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