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Colombia’s civil war spills over

In a remarkable interview, Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, offers a savage evaluation of his Colombian counterpart Álvaro Uribe's recent actions, accusing him of warmongering and hijacking attempts to resolve Colombia's conflict peacefully

June 2, 2008
8 min read

Gorka Castillo: The British writer Richard Gott considers Colombia to be the main element in the region’s instability. Do you share his view?

Rafael Correa: This is nothing new. It goes way back. Colombia is the only country which has paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug traffickers, widespread coca cultivation and large areas of thecountry that aren’t controlled by the state. Paramilitarism and narco-politics don’t exist in Ecuador. Nor do we cultivate coca. Those are exclusively Colombian conditions. I say this with regret because this is a sister country, but Colombia today is the focus of the greatest instability in Latin America and this hurts all of us.

GC: Are you saying that the Colombian government’s image in Latin America is not a good one?

RC: Uribe’s government is completely discredited. We’ve already pointed out his lies; now no one believes him.

GC: In Europe it’s not seen that way.

RC: It’s true that in both the European Union and the United States, the backing of [Uribe’s] lies by some powerful media has harmed us. For that reason I will shortly be undertaking a tour of Europe to let people know about Ecuador and show that we are a decent government and a peaceful land; that the problem lies on the other side of the border; that we’re the victims of the Colombian conflict and not the perpetrators – nor are we accomplices [in the conflict].

GC: You give the impression that a media war has been launched.

RC: It’s not that I’m giving that impression, it’s a fact. We know who we are dealing with: a militaristic country with a president who has a shady past, enormous support from foreign intelligence agencies and an impressive propaganda machine. We have faith that truth and justice will prevail. We’ve already achieved that in Latin America, where Colombia has been comprehensively defeated politically, diplomatically and in terms of information.

GC: What drives Colombia to accuse its neighbouring countries of collaboration with the FARC?

RC: Uribe’s militaristic policies began as soon as he became president. First he reversed the strategy of his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, who had come to embrace [FARC leader] Manuel Marulanda. But in came Uribe with his hard line and he wanted us all to do the same. He’s like a little emperor who follows his boss’s dictates. It’s obvious that his political and economic power is based on this struggle against the FARC. Peace is not convenient for Uribe because fighting guerrillas gives the Colombian electorate a secure feeling. What is troubling is that this conflict is spilling over the borders.

GC: But before the bombing on 1 March, relations between the two countries were respectful.

RC: Uribe has always shown a lack of respect toward Ecuador. So much so that [Colombia] continues to spray our territory with glyphosate, and frequently violates our airspace with their planes. Colombia’s civil war has now been raging for more than half a century. The conflict has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and taken on a complexity that few English-speaking analysts have been able to grasp.

It has been fuelled by the active involvement of the US government, for which Colombia is both ally and agent on a continent dominated by progressive governments generally hostile to US economic and political interests. Colombia is the third largest recipient of US military aid (behind Israel and Egypt), and all the evidence points to this financial support being tied to a persistent strategy of destabilisation of the elected governments of neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador.

The most recent evidence is the regional crisis provoked by the Colombian military’s raid on Ecuadorean territory on 1 March this year. It resulted in the death of the Colombian FARC guerrilla leader, Raul Reyes, who had been involved in negotiations with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and representatives of the French government to release hostages and mediate an end to the conflict. The two following articles shed light on this international dimension of Colombia’s civil war. As for the 1 March bombing, there’s a question that still remains unanswered.

GC: What’s that?

RC: They had Raúl Reyes and his group under their control when they could still be found on Colombian soil. Why did they wait until they crossed into Ecuador to kill them? Was it, by any chance, in order to involve Ecuador in a conflict that is not theirs? Was it not an act of intimidation? Could it have been to force us to participate in Plan Colombia [the US military aid programme]? What Uribe didn’t count on was our response, nor the condemnation he received from the countries in the OAS [Organisation of American States]. The plan failed because we didn’t fall for it.

GC: During the meeting of the Rio Group in Santo Domingo, you showed your hands to Uribe and told him to take a good look at them because they are clean and without blood. What were you referring to?

RC: Uribe has tried to involve us, not only my government, but also [Ecuador’s] armed forces, as supporters of the FARC. Later he alleged that my presidential campaign had been financed by the guerrillas. It’s disgraceful. Where does this gentleman get off, after having violated every international law, accusing us of support for guerrilla groups whose actions we’ve said a thousand times we reject? It’s insulting.

That’s why I told him to look at my hands. Just to highlight the contradiction with Uribe’s position, which has been so scandalously related to drug trafficking. There are many books which detail this. There are also videos which show him meeting with paramilitaries. His warmongering policy is not going to end the [Colombian] conflict. Instead it will exacerbate it and he’s going to leave thousands dead as a result. My hands are clean and bloodless. That’s something President Uribe cannot say.

GC: However, they continue to claim that you were aware of the FARC’s activities in your territory. They say that you were warned as many as 16 times of guerrilla bases in your territory, and you ignored this. Is this true?

RC: This is an unbelievable infamy. All my orders are on record. It’s all so coarse and ridiculous that we’ve decided it’s not worth answering … We don’t know why he does it. Just when relations improve with him, something strange happens and you get stabbed in the back. Something in his head is not working right.

GC: How is it possible that this climate of tension has been reached if at the end of the Rio Group meeting, you managed to shake hands?

RC: That’s Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Something’s wrong with him. His behaviour is terribly psychotic.

GC: Is it true that Reyes had contacted the French in order to negotiate the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, when he was bombed?

RC: Uribe doesn’t want peace, nor does he want hostages released, because Betancourt is a potential presidential candidate. It’s true that we’d known that contact would be made in a neutral third country in order to liberate them later on Ecuadoran soil. President Chávez also asked me if we could receive hostages in our territory because a transfer over the Colombian-Venezuelan border had become very dangerous. We were in the middle of that process. Those moves towards securing the release of the hostages held by the guerrillas were entrusted to Reyes and it’s precisely Reyes who they destroy.

GC: Ecuador has just denounced Colombia to the Hague tribunal for illegal spraying on its territory.

RC: The verdict will still take many years but we hope that a stiff sentence will be handed down to force Bogotá to suspend the aerial glyphosate spraying they’ve been doing since 2006. These fumigations have caused Ecuadorean farmers on the border to leave their homes, lose their crops, their income, and have caused serious illnesses, even death. But do you know what the Colombian government’s reaction has been up until today? It’s to say that our demand that the spraying cease coincides with the FARC’s pleas. It’s shameful.

GC: The crisis has revealed huge cracks in the Ecuadorean intelligence system that have caused the military leadership to be relieved of its duties. What reforms should it undertake?

RC: Something serious is going on with our intelligence services. We still don’t have all the concrete information but we can say that we have been infiltrated by the CIA and this agency works for Colombia.

GC: There are some who criticise you for being naive in having waited so long to change the military leadership, whose loyalties lie with the previous regime.

RC: They’re probably right. And also for having trusted Bogotá. You might say that we underestimated the threat of external attack, as things with Peru have been resolved and we had good relations with Colombia. But we underestimated the fact that Uribe was there.

The original interview by Gorka Castillo was first published in the Spanish newspaper Público. The English translation by Machetera was revised by Pablo Navarrete. Machetera is a member of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity

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