What a week for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. After he dispatched troops on a secret raid to attack the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas in Ecuador, the Andean region was plunged into crisis. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador all protested in outrage as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez attacked Uribe as an American lackey, expressed solidarity with the rebels and moved troops to the Colombian border. Then sud-denly, the tension vanished. Chávez gave a conciliatory speech, Ecuador was placated and Uribe and Chávez shook hands at a Latin summit, to thunderous applause. The battle, it seemed, had ended in an amicable threeway tie.
But the big winner is Uribe. Even though he received a mild rebuke from the Organization of American States for violating Ecuador's sovereignty, it is Chávez who ends the week looking more isolated, thanks to his support for the FARC, which has resorted to kidnapping and drug trafficking to stay in business.
Uribe is also well positioned to extend his victory over Chávez. Ironically, both came to power in 2006 with more than 60 percent of the vote. Then their paths diverged.
Both countries have seen rapid economic growth, but Venezuela's is built entirely on oil money and public spending. Inflation is spiraling out of control (22.5 percent in 2007), and Venezuelans face shortages of basic goods like milk, flour and cooking gas. The nation is suffering a net outflow of capital due to Chávez's anticapitalist rhetoric. Violent-crime rates are at world-record levels, and Chávez's popularity rating has fallen to below 40 percent.
Now Uribe: A net oil importer,Colombia's growth is built partly on manufactured exports. Foreign investment has tripled since 2002 to $6.3 billion. Poverty and unemployment are down, and Uribe's approval rating is 80 percent, due in large part to his effective war on the FARC. With murders down 40 percent and terror attacks down 77 percent, Colombians are ready to march behind Uribe. A snap poll showed that 83 percent of Colombians approve his attack on the FARC.
Chávez has no such backing. For all his efforts to romanticize the FARC, nearly nine in 10 Venezuelans oppose his ties to the despised rebels and want peace with Colombia. Given all this, the most striking difference between these two men is that Chávez is the one who aspires to be seen as regional leader.