The long-running feud between Venezuela and Colombia escalated into outright hostility this week, as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez abruptly severed diplomatic relations between the two South American neighbors. Chávez closed his country's embassy in Bogotá, expelled Colombian diplomats, and accused rival President Alvaro Uribe of attempting to provoke a war. Could it really come to that? Here's a brief guide: (Watch a report about the conflict)
What is this dispute about?
Colombian president Alvaro Uribe accuses Venezuela of protecting leftist Colombian guerillas thought to be hiding in Venezuelan territory. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, meanwhile, denies the claims, saying that Colombia is working with the U.S. to portray him as a terrorist sympathizer.
Who are these guerrillas?
Rebel leaders from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This group was once the military wing of the Colombian communist party, and now regularly stages attacks on Colombian military and government targets. It has become famous for its kidnappings of both Colombian and foreign citizens. Colombia says roughly 1,500 FARC rebels are hiding out in Venezuela.
Why did the fight boil over?
At a meeting of American states in Washington on Thursday, the Colombian ambassador to the U.S. presented reams of evidence of rebel camps within Venezuela, demanding that Colombian officials be allowed access to the sites. Hours later, Chávez announced a suspension of diplomatic relations.
How significant a breakdown is this?
"In reality," says Benedict Mander in the Financial Times, "diplomatic relations could hardly get much worse." Venezuela has boycotted Colombian goods since last year, and trade between the two countries has plummeted. This is just the icing on the cake.
Could it really mean war?
Chávez warned that his military could be called into action at this latest outrage. "We would go to war with Colombia weeping," he announced, "but we would have to go." However, say Tim Padgett and John Otis in Time, it's not the first time the "famously egomaniacal" Chávez has issued such dire warnings against Colombia. If history is any guide, this latest diplomatic spat won't last long.
Is there an end in sight?
Fortunately, there is. Uribe's reign as president ends in August, when he will be replaced by president-elect Juan Manuel Santos, who "pledged to improve relations" with Chávez during his election campaign. Santos' inauguration is likely to reset relations with Venezuela, say Padgett and Otis in Time, and none too soon. "The hemisphere could use a few less nervous breakdowns between Bogotá and Caracas."
What should the Obama administration do?
"Side clearly and strongly with Colombia" against the "hooligan" Chávez, says Otto J. Reich in National Review. Colombia is one the U.S's strongest allies in South America. We cannot "remain silent or neutral." But the outgoing President Uribe can be "naive and erratic," and has undoubtedly made things worse, says the Economist. We should "let Santos be Santos," and repair the split with "diplomacy rather than mere denunciation."