Leonel Fernández: The Man Who Prevented a War

By Felipe Cuello

Leonel Fernández once performed a highly honorable deed. As president of the Dominican Republic, he played a crucial role in preventing the deaths of hundreds of thousands in a regional war. Having recently marked the 100th year since the beginning of World War I, we are compelled to wish for an outcome more similar to the one achieved diplomatically in Santo Domingo during the Colombian Border crisis of 2008.

Dominican President Leonel Fernández (1996-2000, 2004-2012) has a lot to feel proud of. (@AmauryRomeroL)

The Colombian Army lit the fuse when they entered Ecuadorean territory in hot pursuit of top-level FARC commanders — while acting under the US-led Plan Colombia. The FBI had wiretapped the phone of Raúl Reyes, a FARC leader whose location was given away during a phone conversation with Hugo Chávez, setting the stage for the coming events.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa protested the clear violation of sovereignty. Chávez quickly supported Ecuador by moving troops onto the Venezuelan border with Colombia, mirroring Ecuador’s diplomatic maneuvers.

Venezuela, Peru, and Nicaragua joined Ecuador in severing diplomatic ties with Colombia in reaction to the raid. This tense period came to a head at the Rio Group meeting in Santo Domingo. In the run-up to the summit, Colombian ambassadors in all four countries were expelled, followed soon after by threats of trade sanctions from Venezuela. (Notably absent from the bloc of objectors was Cuba, which often cooperates with Venezuela in other forums such as Petrocaribe, where Venezuela provides cheap oil to Caribbean nations in exchange for food, doctors, and votes in situations like these.)

Deft diplomacy from President Fernández, host of the summit, began in anticipation of the Santo Domingo meeting of the Rio Group and resulted in renewed commitments to resolving disputes according to the UN charter and multilateralism (Art. 7, Santo Domingo Declaration, 2008). Officials of the Dominican Republic, where this situation was diplomatically defused, originally expected the agenda to include topics such as climate change and migration.

Though the two countries are usually at odds on everything from international trade policy to their attitudes to the United States, Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe apologized for the violation of sovereignty, and the Ecuadorean authorities found and turned over a clutch of FARC leaders — a rare moment of cooperation between blocs. A handshake between Uribe and his Ecuadorian counterpart appeared all over Latin America and publicly signaled the end of the tensions.

A knock-on effect of the deal was the kick-starting of the Colombian peace process with the FARC. The blow to the guerrilla’s operational capacity was so great it may one day be seen as the beginning of the end of Colombia’s decades-long civil war. President Fernández has a lot to feel proud of.

In the end, even the US$6 billion of trade between Colombia and Venezuela was unaffected. If only other current tensions were so easily resolved — from the South China Sea to the situation in Ukraine. Far better to avoid conflicts in this manner than to start counting the price of poppies, isn’t it?

Lest we forget the horror of war. (Tower of London)

Felipe Cuello is a research assistant with the Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology, based in the Netherlands. Follow @big_phil_osophy.

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