Venezuela-Colombia ties remain strong despite Chávez's reported links to FARC

Newly published findings that Venezuela financed the FARC rebel group in Colombia seem unlikely to harm growing economic and diplomatic links between the two countries.

Fernando Llano/AP
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez gestures upon his arrival at Bolivar avenue to attend the May Day rally in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 1.

Hugo Chávez for years has offered the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) financial support and sanctuary inside Venezuela, motivated by the belief that Colombia, and its ally the United States, would be less of a threat if it were mired in a rebel conflict.

That's a key finding from a 240-page report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank, published just as the neighbors have taken substantial steps toward reconciliation, underscoring how decades of enmity lurk beneath recent moves to restore goodwill.

But most observers say even the report's most explosive assertions – including that Venezuela’s secret police wanted to use some of the rebel group's techniques against government opponents – are unlikely to stem the positive diplomatic tide.

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“Neither Chávez nor [Colombian President Juan Manual] Santos has any interest in derailing the rapprochement between Venezuela and Colombia,” says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. “Both presidents are intent on continuing to reduce bilateral tensions.”

The report, “The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of Raúl Reyes,” is based on documents found in the computer files of a senior FARC commander who was killed in a 2008 raid. If accurate, the report confirms longstanding allegations that Mr. Chávez collaborated with Colombia's largest rebel group.

Responding to its publication Tuesday, Venezuela insisted the information was based on documents doctored by Colombian authorities. Interpol examined the files in 2008 and said the Colombian authorities did not follow “internationally recognized principles” in handling electronic evidence but added there was nothing to suggest the archives had been doctored.

The report's authors dismissed Venezuela's criticism.

"That the Colombian authorities did not conform to international forensic standards in their initial examination of the material is well-known and has been recognised by the IISS in the dossier," James Lockhart Smith, the report's main author, wrote in an email to the Monitor. "However, this is of no relevance to the authenticity of the user files on which the IISS dossier is based. Interpol’s experts found not a single user file had been created, modified, or deleted following the seizure on 1 March 2008."

Initial reaction out of Colombia was restrained, suggesting that President Santos aims to avoid the bilateral animosity during the term of his predecessor, former President Álvaro Uribe, who once nearly came to blows with Chávez during a regional summit.

“I spoke with [Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás] Maduro and we agreed that we’ve turned a page,” Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin told a local radio station. She remarked that she hopes the report “doesn’t bring any noise nor harm” the new path her country has forged with Venezuela, she told radio La W.

Santos has focused on repairing ties with Venezuela since assuming office last summer. Colombian businesses suffered from the disruption in commercial ties and scrambled to diversify their markets. According to the Venezuela-Colombia Chamber for Economic Integration, trade between the two nations topped $7 billion in 2008 and plummeted to just under $2 billion last year.

The new approach seems to be working, with both presidents taking politically risky actions to demonstrate seriousness. Santos recently extradited to Venezuela an alleged drug trafficker that was also wanted in the US. Chávez extradited this month a journalist that Colombia accuses of being a senior FARC member but whose supporters say is a leftist journalist being persecuted for his beliefs.

Last month, Chávez for the first time acknowledged that some of his political allies met with Colombian guerrillas on their own but that he ordered an end to the unofficial contacts.

“The Colombian government has no illusions about Chávez and support for the FARC,” says Mr. Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. “There remains considerable mistrust and suspicion, but the improved relationship is already bearing some fruit for Colombia.”

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