March 10, 2008 / 6:25 PM / in 11 years

Diplomacy ends Andes crisis, but tensions linger

SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - Left to its own devices, Latin America scored a diplomatic victory last week coaxing Andean nations away from a conflict between a U.S. ally and its foes, but the region is still vulnerable to turmoil.

A week of troop buildups and insults between Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, the worst regional crisis in years, ended with handshakes at a meeting of Latin American leaders who maneuvered without the polarizing United States presence.

“This projects to the world the idea that this group of countries is capable of finding peaceful ways to a solution,” said Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a politics professor at Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar University.

The agreement to back down came at a summit of the Rio Group of Latin American leaders in the Dominican Republic on Friday. The group is seen as an alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States, or OAS.

The dispute, triggered when U.S. ally Colombia killed a commander of the FARC rebels inside Ecuadorean territory, threatened to spark frontier clashes and lose billions of dollars in trade as tensions among the three nations soared.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a leading anti-U.S. force in Latin America who wants socialist revolution in his oil-exporting country, presented the conflict as part of a struggle between Washington and enemies of U.S. “imperialism”.

The handshake came after Uribe apologized and said such raids would not happen again if he got more cooperation against the FARC, Latin America’s oldest rebel insurgency.

Earlier in the week, an emergency meeting at the OAS in Washington criticized Colombia for invading Ecuadorean territory, but did not explicitly condemning its raid.

“Latin America in many ways demonstrated that when left alone it can find its ways out of bundles like this. The fact is that the United States was a negative presence in the OAS,” said Eduardo Gamarra, Latin America expert at Florida International University.

FESTERING TENSIONS

Behind-the-scenes efforts by Argentina, Mexico and Brazil helped to shift Chavez and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa to positions where their interests might be better served by toning down the rhetoric, analysts said.

Correa traveled around the region to lobby against Colombia, but received a message of caution in Brazil.

“It was made very clear during Correa’s visit to Brazil that Brazil is very interested in resolving this crisis and keeping Chavez out, because Chavez was doing everything to blast Colombia,” said Brasilia-based analyst David Fleischer.

Venezuela and Ecuador eventually pulled back from the brink because it was never in their interests to take the dispute beyond saber-rattling, experts said.

Correa used the crisis to shore up his popularity at home with a vociferous defense of his country’s sovereignty.

And Chavez, who faces criticism over food shortages and high inflation at home, won praise from the Chilean head of the OAS for his conciliatory remarks in Santo Domingo.

Uribe, popular at home for his tough stance on the FARC, gained by putting the sensitive subject of rebel camps outside Colombia’s borders firmly in the international spotlight, said Julia Sweig at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.

But the symbolic handshake was unlikely to smooth over accusations raised by Colombia about Venezuelan and Ecuadorean links to the FARC rebels, which Bogota and Washington label a cocaine-smuggling terrorist organization.

Both Chavez and Correa deny such links.

But the Venezuelan leader is now openly backing the FARC politically, which is likely to be another source of friction between Chavez, who says Washington wants to oust him, and White House ally Uribe.

“The relationship among these South American leaders is marked by the strong mistrust between Colombia and Venezuela... the region remains a tinderbox,” said Dan Erikson, analyst at Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

“The handshakes and smiles that accompanied the end of the dispute will be temporary, while the structural and personal divisions run far deeper,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana, Chris Aspin in Mexico City, Fiona Ortiz and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas, Andrei Khalip in Rio de Janeiro)

Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by David Storey

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