South American presidents reached an uneasy compromise to resolve a dangerous crisis triggered by Colombia’s military raid in Ecuador, stepping back from a week of insults, troop movements and talk of war.
After an emotional debate at the 20-nation Rio Group summit in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, followed on live television throughout Latin America, the presidents of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador offered one another stiff handshakes and joined other Latin American presidents in approving a declaration resolving to work for a peaceful end to the crisis.
The statement notes that Colombian president Alvaro Uribe apologised for the March 1 raid that killed 25 people including a senior rebel commander, and pledged not to violate another nation’s sovereignty again.
But it also committed all the countries to fight threats to national stability from “irregular or criminal groups”, a clear reference to conservative Colombia’s accusation that its two left-wing neighbours have ties to Colombian rebels.
In the end, even Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa – who was brimming with anger during the debate – seemed satisfied.
“With the commitment to never again attack a brother country and the request for forgiveness, we can consider this grave incident as over,” he said.
The leaders immediately began to reverse their steps towards conflict.
Colombia pledged not to follow through on its threat to seek genocide charges against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez at an international court, Venezuela said.
Nicaragua said it would restore diplomatic relations with Colombia, broken off only the day before, and Mr Chavez said trade with Colombia should “keep increasing”, two days after saying he did not want even “a grain of rice” from his neighbour.
“We’re going to begin to de-escalate,” Mr Chavez said. “Hopefully this compromise will be honoured so this never happens again.”
But the agreement did not eliminate the causes of the crisis – a Colombian uprising that has spilled across its borders and a stalemate over international efforts to allow a swap of rebel-held hostages for Colombian prisoners.
The showdown underscored Latin America’s swerve to the left in recent years and the increasing isolation of Colombia’s centre-right government, Washington’s strongest ally in Latin America.
Mr Correa, Mr Chavez and Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, all left-wingers aligned against Washington, were the most strident in confronting Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, but even more centrist leaders from Argentina, Brazil and Chile lectured the US ally.
The day’s loudest applause came when Mr Correa made a final appeal to Mr Uribe to respect their border, saying no nation could otherwise be safe.
The summit featured hours of finger-jabbing lectures, angry speeches and pleas for goodwill. At one point, the atmosphere became so bitter that Mr Correa walked out for what an aide said was a bathroom break. He quickly returned and denounced Mr Uribe as a liar.
“Your insolence is doing more damage to the Ecuadorean people than your murderous bombs,” Mr Correa bellowed. “Stop trying to justify the unjustifiable!”
Mr Uribe said his military was forced to act because Colombia’s neighbours had provided refuge to the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which finances its anti-government uprising through kidnapping and the cocaine trade. He said the rebels responded by doing favours for Mr Chavez and helping Mr Correa get elected.
Mr Correa described Ecuador as a victim of Colombia’s conflict and proposed an international peacekeeping force to guard their border – an idea not included in the summit declaration.
Mr Chavez, for his part, denied Mr Uribe’s accusation that he had given £158 million to the rebels or sent them weapons.
“I have never done it and will never do it,” Mr Chavez said. “I could have sent a lot of rifles to the FARC. I will never do it because I want peace.”
Bolivian president Evo Morales blamed the US for dividing a peaceful Latin America, declaring that over the decades, false labels such as “Communist”, “drug trafficker” and – since the September 11 2001 attacks – “terrorist”, had ruined lives and justified wars across the region.
But one of the few leaders offering support was Salvadoran president Tony Saca, who said: “Colombia has the legitimate right to go after terrorists ... wherever they may be, of course without harming the sovereignty of another country.”