Markus Schultze-Kraft: Symptom of a widening gulf between the Andean nations

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The Independent Online

The violent clashes between indigenous protesters and Peruvian police and security forces this month have had international reverberations as well as domestic consequences. The reactions they sparked in the Andean neighbourhood clearly reflect the dangerous degree of mistrust and polarisation that today afflicts the region, both between countries and within them.

Consider, for instance, how relations between Peru and Bolivia have worsened. Evo Morales, who is Bolivia's first-ever indigenous president and heads a government determined to push through sweeping social and political change in favour of the country's indigenous majority, publicly referred to the violence as "genocide of the Free Trade Agreement [with the United States]".

Senior government officials in Lima took strong issue with this unveiled criticism of Peru's international trade strategy, and accused La Paz of meddling in its internal affairs. It even insinuated that both Bolivia and Venezuela could be behind the disturbances.

In the past decade, the rift between Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela on one side, and Colombia and Peru on the other, has progressively become deeper. At the root of the regional tensions are competing perspectives on how to deal with socio-economic change and reforms, control violent conflict and organised crime, in particular drug-trafficking, and structure international relations.

Both Colombia and Peru have built alliances with Washington and reached out to the European Union. In contrast, under Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's tutelage, Bolivia is pursuing a course of confrontation with Washington and maintains its distance to Brussels.

In this setting, almost any occurrence can prompt the potentially explosive deterioration of relations between the Andean nations – especially when serious internal violence is involved, or force is used by one government to the detriment of another, as with the Colombian air strike against a FARC camp inside Ecuador in March 2008. It is of the utmost importance that the five Andean nations find effective ways to deal with the political-ideological divide that exists today.

The author is the director of International Crisis Group's Latin America programme