Thursday, July 22, 2010
The Northern Tier Countries of South America
Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela make up this trio of troubled countries at the northern end of South America. Each has its unique history, geography, and changeable relations between them. As one newspaper article aptly puts it, 'When newly elected Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos takes office Aug. 7, there will be no welcome wagon from his neighbors. To the west is Ecuador, where Santos is facing murder charges for ordering a 2008 cross-border raid on a clandestine guerrilla camp of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC. To the east is Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez has shut down trade, called Santos a regional threat and accused him of turning the country into a base-camp for the U.S. military.'
Colombia has the fourth largest economy in South America, but since the 1960s, government forces, left-wing insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries have been engaged in the continent's longest-running armed conflict. Fueled by the cocaine trade, this escalated dramatically in the 1980s. However, in the most recent decade (2000s) violence has decreased significantly. Many paramilitary groups have demobilized as part of a controversial peace process with the government, and the guerrillas have lost control in many areas where they once dominated.
As the former minister of defense, Santos, 56, rose to prominence masterminding some of the most lethal and demoralizing blows against the nation's 50-year-old guerrilla army, FARC. From 1991 to 1994, Santos was also the country's first minister of commerce, spending much of his time hammering out trade deals with his Andean neighbors. In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, Santos said, `I was the architect of the integration process with Venezuela and Ecuador, which generated hundreds of thousands of jobs,so I will do everything within my reach to improve relations.'
The Miami Herald article continued, noting, 'Tensions have rarely been higher. In June of 2009, Venezuela virtually froze trade with Colombia -- it's No. 2 source of imports -- as it protested the FARC attack on Ecuadorean soil and the government's decision to allow U.S. forces to operate on seven Colombian bases. As a result, commerce during the first quarter of this year plummeted 70 percent versus 2009...'
President Elect Santos engineered a large successful hostage rescue during national elections this past June, 2010.
Venezuela vaulted out of general economic malaise in the 1910s, when the discovery of massive oil deposits during World War I prompted an economic boom that lasted into the 1980s. Today, the petroleum sector dominates Venezuela's mixed economy, accounting for roughly a third of GDP, around 80% of exports and more than half of government revenues. Venezuela contains some of the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world. It consistently ranks among the top ten crude oil producers in the world.
According to a brief history in Wikipedia, in 1992 Hugo Chávez, an army paratrooper, staged a coup d'état attempt seeking to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez failed and was placed in jail. In November 1992, another unsuccessful coup attempt occurred, organized by groups loyal to Chávez remaining in the armed forces. Chávez was pardoned in March 1994 by president Rafael Caldera, with a clean slate and his political rights intact. In 1998, Chávez was elected president. His reform program, which he later called the "Bolivarian Revolution", was aimed at redistributing the benefits of Venezuela's oil wealth to the lower socio-economic groups by using it to fund programs such as health care and education.
The results are mixed, corruption is high, and Chavez, though calling for Latin American economic integration, has become notorious for provoking trouble with neighboring countries and most Western nations, while flirting with Iran and other regimes burdened with autocratic leaders.
Venezuela President Hugo Chavez cultivating relationship with Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Ecuador is the quieter nation of the three, it too has sizable oil deposits and an export industry which underpins the government and broad economy though creating disparities between social classes. However, with the election of its president Rafael Correa in 2005, and to a second term in 2009, there has a been a similar political orientation away from the US and Europe as well as free market financing entities such as the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF). In lieu of those relations and engagements, Ecuador has paid more attention to Iran and Venezuela in particular, and belongs to ALBA - Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Spanish: Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América).
ALBA is an international cooperation organization based on the idea of social, political, and economic integration between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is associated with socialist and social democratic governments and is an attempt at regional economic integration based on a vision of social welfare, bartering and mutual economic aid, rather than trade liberalization as with free trade agreements. Venezuela and Cuba were the two founding members in 2004 and since then, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and several small Caribbean countries have joined. (Though in another example of Chavez at cross-purposes with his ego, Honduras joined ALBA in 2008 but later withdrew its membership because of Venezuela's 'lack of respect' for its participation.)
Quito, Equador, at 9,350 ft, is the second highest national capitol in elevation in the world
Interestingly, all three countries gained independence from Spain in 1819, and for a decade were part of a broad "Gran Colombia" nation. By 1830, this structure collapsed with the secession of Venezuela and Ecuador. The rising tensions between Venezuela and Colombia dominate developments at the moment, with Chavez's provocative leadership style earning both a cold scrutiny and calculated support among the world's governments. We can only hope that wise governance between the leaders will prevail in the months ahead.