Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez has long been a source of regional instability. Now he is at it again, threatening his Colombian neighbors with war.
This past weekend, after ordering thousands of Venezuelan troops to the Columbian border, Chavez gave a nationally televised broadcast in which he told the nation, “Let’s not lose a day in fulfilling our main mission: to prepare for war.” Such bluster is nothing new for Chavez, and tensions with Columbia have been running particularly high in recent years.
The most recent dispute flared last year, when Colombian military forces conducted a special forces raid across the border into neighboring Ecuador. While the military operation did encroach on Ecuadorian sovereignty, it was not directed against the state of Ecuador itself, but at a FARC terrorist camp. FARC, a Marxist narco-terrorist organization, has been waging a guerilla war against the Colombian government for years, financing its brutal operations through the sale of drugs abroad. In recent years, and with much help from the United States, the Colombians have begun to win their war against the FARC by disrupting their financing, killing their members, and scattering their leadership.
The operation in Ecuador was one such example. A high-value FARC leader, Raul Reyes, was known to have slipped out of Colombia to a camp barely a mile from the Colombian border. The camp was bombed heavily, and Colombian soldiers went in to retrieve Reyes’ body and several computers containing valuable intelligence. Ecuador was understandably upset that its territory had been violated by a foreign military, and sent a few thousand troops to the border, as well as recalling its ambassador from Colombia.
The incident eventually petered out, with the Organization of American States criticizing Colombia’s incursion. Chavez, however, did his best to inflame the situation, and deployed ten battalions of troops to the border his country shares with Colombia. While the crisis ultimately passed without bloodshed, diplomatic relations and international trade in the region were thrown into chaos by the fear of war. They have remained poor since.
Now, months later, Chavez seems determined to provoke another incident. This time, his excuse is an unfortunate incident at the border between Colombia and Venezuela. Two Venezuelan soldiers were recently killed along the Colombian border, almost certainly by FARC or an affiliated criminal group. But Chavez has responded to the tragic loss of his two men by portraying it as result of deliberate Colombian efforts to destabilize his regime by exporting violence and chaos from their country into his.
In fact, there is more evidence to suggest that Chavez has sought to destabilize Colombia through espionage and supporting insurgent groups, much as Iran — a close ally of Venezuela — seeks to destabilize Israel and US-occupied Iraq.
Again, this is nothing new for Chavez, who has claimed in the past that the United States is preparing to invade his country. In every past case, this has been dismissed by observers as an attempt by Chavez to whip his people into a nationalist frenzy as a way of distracting them from pressing domestic issues, issues that his government has proven incapable of handling. It has also given Chavez an excuse to train and arm private military groups loyal only to him. It’s a classic gambit of dictatorial regimes: Lie to the people about an external enemy while consolidating power at home.
Chavez is also angry about a recently enacted defense agreement between Colombia and the United States. The agreement grants the American military access to seven bases on Colombian soil, but it does not authorize any increased deployment of American military personnel over and above the Congressionally mandated limit of 1400, and is quite clearly designed to increase intelligence sharing and aid the fight against narco-terrorism. Chavez, however, acts as though whole divisions of the American Army were camped in his backyard. Absurd though it is, Chavez continues to bang the war drums, proving that one of the advantages of being an autocrat is never having to make sense.
It’s not hard to see why Chavez is rattling his saber. Recent polls have revealed that his popularity is plummeting at home. A majority of Venezuelans view the situation in their country negatively. This is unsurprising when you consider that Venezuela, a country blessed with vast petroleum deposits and mighty rivers, has recently had to impose rationing of water and electricity. Such manifestly bad governance has hurt Chavez’s popular support. That’s bad enough in a multi-party democracy, where there’s always an obstinate opposition to blame for your failures, but in Venezuela, Chavez is the government. Power begins and ends with him, and when the people are unhappy, there is no one else to blame. Except, of course, the imperialist Americans and their Colombian stooges conjured up by Chavez’s propaganda.
While Chavez is unlikely to actually go to war over the shooting of two soldiers or a new agreement for cooperation between long-time allies, he is certainly dangerous enough to demand close watch. In recent years, Venezuela has worked hard to modernize its military with advanced Russian weapons. Chavez may be a buffoon, but he is a well-armed buffoon.
Colombia has turned to the United Nations and the Organization of American States for international intervention in the hopes of using diplomacy to reduce tensions, but such appeals will likely be futile. So long as Chavez can distract his people from their deteriorating standard of living at home by raising the specter of war abroad, he’ll continue to make life difficult for Colombia. It may be the oldest trick in the dictator’s book, but it has not failed Chavez yet.