Diplomacy: Finding equilibrium

Colombian FM tells ‘Post’ relationship with Israel remains close even as Bogota reaches out to Iran’s closest ally in South America.

Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin R 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin R 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BOGOTA – The first person to greet shoppers at the trendy El Retiro mall in this capital city is not a sales clerk or concierge. It is a uniformed security guard who stops all cars entering the underground garage, opens their trunks for inspection and then directs a large dog to sniff the backseats for scents of explosives.
Sometimes Colombian guards, when checking a foreigner, apologize for the inconvenience. When that foreigner is Israeli ambassador to Colombia Yoed Magen, he tells the guards not to worry because he is only too familiar with the process.
“We understand. We share that concern with the Colombians,” Magen says while sitting in an office whose panoramic windows overlook Bogota, until recent years the scene of regular bombings. “We feel at home.”
Colombia’s fight against violent guerrilla and paramilitary groups has made it Israel’s closest ally in South America because of the countries’ shared experience of living with terrorism and because Israel has provided Colombia with concrete military assistance to combat it. But with the government now trying to ease neighborhood tensions by reaching out to some of Israel’s biggest regional foes – notably Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez – Jerusalem hopes the fundamentals underlying those ties will keep the bond strong.
“Colombia’s relationships in the world are fully independent and autonomous,” says Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin.
“We have a close relationship with Israel, as we do with many other nations in the world.”
That relationship became much tighter under the government of the previous president, Alvaro Uribe, who took office in 2002 and promised to sweep away the conciliatory policies of his predecessors in favor of a tough line on guerrilla groups, chief among them the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Uribe was highly successful in cutting down FARC and bringing the paramilitary groups under control, dramatically reducing the levels of violence and restoring a sense of normalcy to major Colombian cities. But he also got into confrontations with other Latin American countries that he felt weren’t sufficiently supportive of his efforts, particularly Venezuela and Ecuador where FARC leaders were known to hide out. Tensions with Chavez ran particularly high.
When Uribe’s Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010, he pledged to continue the same approach to Colombia’s internal conflict but took a decidedly softer tone in external relations.
Accordingly, he traveled to Caracas to meet with Chavez and to Quito to meet with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, among other gestures.
Though some Uribe backers have been less than pleased, Santos has received wide support for this policy from across the political spectrum.
“We are trying to find some sort of balance or equilibrium in order to avoid conflict with our neighbors, and also we are trying to create an environment that allows us to obtain better cooperation with them on security matters, though we know the cooperation from them will never be the ideal cooperation,” explains international relations professor Andres Molano, who teaches at the San Carlos Diplomatic Academy for foreign ministry staff.
Underscoring his point is Chavez’s recent appointment of Gen. Henry Rangel Silva – whom the US has designated for materially assisting FARC’s narcotics trafficking – as defense minister.
Molano stresses, though, that the relationship with Venezuela goes far beyond security issues and highlights trade, infrastructure and energy as other fields where cooperation matters greatly to Colombia.
Additionally, the tensions between Colombia and its immediate neighbors have worsened its relationship with the whole region, he says.
“It’s put Colombia into some sort of isolation that we need to overcome to occupy the place that we should occupy among the order of Latin American nations.”
In September, Colombia confronted a major test of just how far its effort at balance would go. Would it join with other South American countries and support the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN? The answer was no.
“Colombia has been very clear in its position.
We have a close bilateral relationship with Israel and we have historically supported the right for self-determination of the Palestinian people,” states Holguin.
“We endorse the two-state solution.”
Rather than unilateral steps, she continues, “We are convinced that direct negotiations are the most viable tool for these nations to reach peace and a coexistence agreement, dealing with the main core issues that have kept them apart for so long.”
Colombia’s decision was particularly significant because it currently holds a seat on the 15-member Security Council, which was poised to consider the Palestinians’ appeal.
To Mauricio Jaramillo Jassir, a professor at Colombia’s Superior School of Warfare for military officers, the government’s choice was a major mistake.
“With this decision of not recognizing the Palestinian state, we are deepening the isolation from the rest of the hemisphere,” he argues.
Juan Mario Laserna, a Colombian senator from the Conservative Party, disagrees.
“I don’t think you can manage international relations as a beauty contest,” he counters.
Lobbying the Colombian government to reject unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, Magen, the Israeli ambassador, found that most officials he dealt with were as opposed to it as Laserna.
“We didn’t have to press them that much.
The Colombian government was steadfast.”
It helps that Colombia itself has been wary about interference from international groups – the UN included – in its own domestic conflict and argues for solutions forged between the parties rather than externally imposed.
But Magen contends that Colombia’s position goes deeper than the politics of the peace process and the UN.
“Although our conflict is external and the Colombian conflict is internal, the consequences are alike. You have terror here. You have terror there. You have car bombs. You have big armies,” he says. “You have people that suffer.”
The two countries also both endure similar side effects, such as a vulnerable tourism industry and a troubled international image.
During Holguin’s trip to Israel this October, Magen relates, Colombian officials were chagrined to hear that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had just watched Colombiana, a film steeped in drug violence.
They, like Israelis, are often distressed at the way they find their country depicted in popular culture.
“It’s much easier for me as an ambassador to represent our cause in Colombia than in other [South American] countries,” Magen says. “The rest is easier, much easier when there’s a common understanding.”
In addition to shared experience, there are also the practical nuts and bolts that hold the relationship together – the hardware of Israel’s military cooperation.
“Israel has given a lot of support to our armed forces, not only in terms of equipment but also in terms of training,” notes Laserna.
A November 2008 cable from the US embassy in Bogota made public by WikiLeaks estimated that as of 2007, roughly 38 percent of Colombia’s foreign defense purchases were from Israel.
“Key areas of cooperation include strategic military advice, special forces training and arms sales in support of Colombia’s battle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,” the cable reads.
Beyond Israel’s contributions, Colombia has also received vital aid from the United States. Some critics of Colombia’s stance on Palestinian statehood, including Jassir, charge that staying in America’s good graces has played a central role in the government’s position on the Palestinians.
Holguin, however, rejects any link between Colombia’s relationship with Israel and its relationship with the US.
“Our bilateral relationship with Israel and our bilateral relationship with the United States are independent from one another and deal with different issues,” she says.
Molano argues that it would be wrong to think that Colombia hasn’t recognized a Palestinian state only because of America.
“It’s deeply related to our national interest to keep the cooperation with Israel,” he says, adding, “Our foreign policy is very autonomous and it won’t change because of this process of normalization with Venezuela and other countries.”
Indeed, Colombia has a history of taking independent positions on foreign policy.
Marcos Peckel, executive director of the Colombia Jewish Community Confederation, the umbrella organization for Colombian Jewry, offers a string of examples of Colombian autonomy starting with being the sole South American country to participate in the Korean War and then again in the Iraq War’s “coalition of the willing.” In addition, Colombia alone joined Chile in siding against Argentina in the Falklands War and is more enthusiastic than its neighbors about America’s war on drugs since drug money supports FARC and its associates.
Peckel, a self-described practitioner of “political Judaism,” isn’t worried that Colombia might change its policy toward Israel, in part because he doesn’t see a lot of domestic opposition to its position.
Although the hundreds of thousands of Colombians of Arab ancestry, most of them Christian, dwarf the country’s at most 5,000 Jews, Peckel says the two communities are fairly apolitical and get along.
Magen points to more pressure from Arab activists on the Palestinian recognition issue than Peckel does, but he also points to other constituencies that strongly support Israel, among them the rapidly growing number of Evangelical Christians. At Christmas time, Magen was invited to appear at events marking the holiday to talk about Israel in front of tens of thousands of Evangelicals.
Magen cites two polls from October, one in a major newspaper and one a call-in program on TV, in which Colombians backed the Israeli position over the Palestinians’ by a margin of 77 to 18 and 89 to 11.
Jassir – who in September joined 49 other academics in writing a letter calling on the government to back the Palestinian bid at the UN – found that there wasn’t much establishment support for his position, with few political leaders taking up the issue.
Jassir doesn’t expect things to change anytime soon, and while that disappoints him when it comes to the recognition of a Palestinian state, he, too, thinks it’s good that Colombia has a solid relationship with Israel.
“Israel fights in a big conflict as we do, so I think there are a lot of lessons, a lot of knowledge that we can learn from Israel,” he explains. “I think the relationship is useful.”
“It’s not only a relationship of shared values, which we have, but about shared situations and shared experiences,” says Laserna, who sits on the other side of the political fence from Jassir. “A lot of people have said that Colombia is the Israel of South America and I think that is to a great degree true.”