Tight Colombian election race stirs region

By Andrew Cawthorne – Analysis

CARACAS (BestGrowthStock) – Barely a day goes by without Hugo Chavez mentioning Juan Manuel Santos. And vice-versa.

The socialist Venezuelan leader and Colombia’s right-wing presidential aspirant have been baiting each other in public for weeks, pushing the Colombian election campaign beyond its frontiers and fueling the Andean neighbors’ political feud.

Not to be left out, Ecuador has also entered the fray, criticizing Santos’ record as defense minister under current President Alvaro Uribe and upholding an arrest warrant for his role in a 2008 raid against rebels camping over the border.

“They want to stop me winning the presidency,” Santos told Reuters, saying his neighbors viewed him as an obstacle to the expansion of socialism in South America.

Though many expected the attacks on Santos from Venezuela and Ecuador to bolster his image with local voters — as a tough heir to Uribe who will stand up to the locally unpopular Chavez — the opposite appears to have happened.

Just as Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa condemned him as a potential menace to the region, Santos slipped to second in polls before the May 30 vote, with former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus edging ahead.

“Even though Colombians don’t like Chavez, many are also fed up with the problems with their neighbors. So maybe Santos miscalculated by taking on Chavez,” said Christian Voelkel, an analyst with IHS Global Insights.

“What’s clear is that until the new government takes office in August, tensions are going to be high around the region,” Voelkel added. “Though we do not expect anything more substantial than these verbal disputes.”

More significant to the region will be the election aftermath, rather than the predictable cross-border rhetoric during the campaign. With a clear winner unlikely in May, Santos and Mockus are expected to face off in a June run-off.

Whoever wins, Colombia will remain a top U.S. ally in the region, squeezed between leftist Venezuela and Ecuador, and a willing partner for Washington’s security and anti-drug operations in the region, analysts say.

It is that relationship, specifically an agreement giving the U.S. military greater access to Colombian bases, that most irks Chavez. He calls the Uribe government an “Israel” in the region, and says the United States could use it to attack him.

NEW START WITH MOCKUS?

The chances for improved regional relations certainly look higher with Mockus. Though broadly espousing Uribe’s security and free-market policies, he is a Green Party candidate with a softer and fresher image than Santos.

“The great challenge for the next government, whoever it may be, is the rebuilding of relations with its neighbors. That requires an assertive, thought-through foreign policy,” said Markus Schultze-Kraft, Bogota-based Latin American program director for the International Crisis Group think-tank.

“It would be easier, of course, with Mockus because he does not have the record that Santos has. He did not run the defense ministry when Angostura (in Ecuador) was bombed.”

Analysts and diplomats are mindful, though, that a new start between Venezuela and the United States, under President Barack Obama, quickly vanished into business as usual, with Chavez’s “anti-imperialist” rhetoric harder than ever.

Numerous domestic factors are fueling the war of words around Caracas, Quito and Bogota.

Chavez is having a tough year, with the economy in recession and Venezuelans grumbling over electricity and water shortages as an important legislative election looms in September.

Correa is losing the support of some left-wing hardliners in his movement, so his shots at Santos could claw back some credibility, analysts say.

In Ecuador’s case, though, pragmatism seems to prevail, and analysts expect the gradual normalization of relations with Colombia to continue after the election.

“Ecuador-Colombia relations are on the road to repair. The process is still relatively robust, even though Correa chose to show off his credentials to the more radical left-wingers by attacking Santos,” one Latin American diplomat said.

With $7 billion bilateral trade at stake, and an extremely volatile border plagued by illegal militia and traffickers on both sides, it is also in both Venezuela and Colombia’s economic interests to bury their political differences.

On the once-bustling frontier between the two, where thousands of small traders are going out of business, residents on both sides are increasingly fed up with the posturing and pleading for an end to “macho” politics.

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(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Editing by Pat Markey and Eric Beech)

Tight Colombian election race stirs region