Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is known for rhetorical excess — memorably complaining of the “smells of sulfur” after he followed George Bush on the U.N. Headquarters podium in 2006. So perhaps Chavez’s threat Sunday to move 6,000 troops to Colombia’s border could be shrugged off as just a little saber rattling. However, if war comes, the battle will be between Latin America’s biggest U.S. foe and the region’s largest recipient of U.S. military aid.
The flashpoint is Columbia’s cross-border killing — in Ecuador — of one of its biggest domestic enemies: Raul Reyes, the number two man in FARC, the leftist guerrillas who have long opposed the Colombian government. Chavez and Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa are allies, and Correa has publicly mocked Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s claim that FARC forces were killed after fleeing one mile into Ecuador. Noting that bodies were found in their underwear, Correa insists “the guerrillas were bombed and massacred while they slept.”
Venezuela has pulled its diplomats from Colombia, and Ecuador expelled the Colombian ambassador. Shortly after Chavez’s announcement, Correa also sent soldiers to the border. Meanwhile, a Colombian presidential spokesman said captured documents showed “Correa has a relationship and commitments with FARC,” which Ecuador denies.
While Colombia and its U.S. backers view the FARC as terrorists and narcotrafficantes, Chavez made his feelings plain in his annual address to Venezuela’s National Assembly in January: “The Farc and [National Liberation Army] ELN are not terrorist bodies. They are real armies that occupy space in Colombia. That must be recognized. They are insurgent forces with a Bolivarian political project, which here we respect.” (Chavez venerates 19th Century revolutionary Simon Bolivar, who helped liberate Latin America from Spain; Bolivar’s name is a proxy for redistributionist economic policies aimed at helping the poor.)
Time magazine notes that Columbia is “the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid outside of Iraq.” Washington’s “Plan Colombia” ostensibly combats drug cultivation and trafficking, but as Time claims the $5 billion in American aid since 2000 has “not-so-subtly been employed to help the Colombian military beat back” FARC. The result? “While the cultivation of coca, cocaine’s raw material, is up again, the FARC is down — from close to 20,000 fighters in the 1990s to about half that today,” Time observes.
American readers this morning might be surprised that Chavez is pointing his spear at Colombia, but his weekend statement culminates a period of ramping up. As recently as last November, Uribe allowed Chavez to negotiate with FARC for the release of several long-held Colombia and U.S. hostages. However, the British foreign affairs magazine New Statesman reports that tensions began rising in November after Uribe suspended Chavez’s participation for going around the Colombian president directly to the country’s military leaders. (Chavez, acting on his own, got FARC to release four hostages last Wednesday.) In response, Chavez has called Uribe a “criminal” and Washington’s “lapdog” with “Dracula’s fangs.”
On Feb. 2, according to the New Statesman, Chavez put his country’s military on “high alert” because of a perceived Colombian threat, telling a national TV audience, “We don’t know how far it could go. We don’t want to hurt anybody, but no one should make a mistake with us.”
On Feb. 4 — the same day as Chavez celebrated the 16th anniversary of his initial failed coup — “over a million protesters took to the streets in neighboring Colombia and in cities across the world to voice their opposition to Chávez’s hostage-taking rebel allies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,” the New Statesman reported. (An interesting side note: marchers used social networking sites such as Facebook to help organize the march.)
Possible war game plan
Three weeks ago, the ISN Security Watch News service reported that “there is talk of light-armor personnel carriers gathering in some places on the border.”
Back then, ISN reporter Sam Logan game-planned a possible war: “The Colombians’ … strength is man-to-man combat and they could weather well a long battle. It is in Chavez’s interests to have a quick strike and as short a conflict as possible, one he desperately needs to present as a defensive move, and one he must present as a win.”
Colombia has struck at the FARC in neighboring countries before. According to ISN, Colombian agents arranged for a FARC operative’s arrest in Venezuela in 2004, but Chavez saw it as a breach of sovereignty and closed the border.
What of a two-front war? In Ecuador, President Correa has denied being a Bolivarian, but calls himself a Chavez friend, and to a certain extent, owes his presidency to the Venezuelan’s petrodollars. In 2005, as Ecuador’s economy minister, he tried to bypass the World Bank after it insisted on restructuring oil revenues in a way that hurt the poor; Venezuela stepped in, promising to buy 50 percent of Ecuador’s bonds, but Correa’s plan was shot down by then-President Alfredo Palacio. Correa resigned, but a year and a half later, won the presidency. Ecuador’s military is considerably smaller than either Venezuela’s or Colombia’s, so Correa’s rush to the border may just be pro forma.
David Brauer covers media, Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County politics. He can be reached at dbrauer [at] minnpost [dot] com.