March 7, 2008
By Alan W. Dowd
With the intervention of the Organization of American States (OAS), it looks like the war clouds hanging over Colombia and Venezuela may be clearing. But since the cause of this dangerous storm system remains—namely, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and his growing ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—Washington’s allies in Colombia should brace for more heavy weather. In fact, we may just now be entering the eye of the storm.
As is so often the case with bullies and aggressors, Chavez blames those who are defending themselves for triggering this crisis. Colombia did launch a military strike on FARC safe havens in Ecuador, but it did so in pursuit of rebel leaders who are responsible for decades of indiscriminate death and destruction inside Colombia’s borders. Among those targeted and killed were Raul Reyes, a key leader of the FARC, along with 23 of his aides and guerilla fighters. (Ecuador’s rant about violations of sovereignty is a subject for another essay, but this much we know: When a country is unable or unwilling to prevent its territory from being used as a launching pad for attacks into another sovereign country, it invites external intervention.)
In response to Colombia’s action, Chavez sent thousands of troops to the Venezuela-Colombia frontier in late February, turning a case of self-defense and hot pursuit into a full-blown continental crisis.
Even after the OAS agreed to set up a commission to study the incident and brokered a nuanced compromise resolution that called for the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ecuador” to be respected, while making sure not to condemn Colombia for defending its own territory, Chavez continued his saber-rattling and ordered his military commanders to complete the deployment of 10,000 troops and scores of tanks.
If the move was provocative and unnecessary before the OAS acted, it’s even more so now—that is, unless Chavez has something to be worried about.
Laptop computers seized during the Reyes raid appear to prove what many have suspected—that Chavez and his intermediaries are supporting the thuggish FARC, which traffics in drugs to fund its killings and kidnappings. (The UN estimates that the FARC generates $204 million a year from the drug trade.)
As AP reports, “If authentic, the computer files suggest Chavez has been in league with the rebels for more than a decade.” And they appear to be authentic.
The files contain detailed notes and discussions about a Venezuelan emissary to the FARC, Ivan Marquez, who has made it clear to his contacts that Chavez wants to undermine Colombia’s tenacious president, Alvaro Uribe, while helping to change the FARC’s “international pariah status,” in the words of the AP report.
The computer files quote Marquez as saying that Venezuela intends to use information from the FARC to build a consensus against Colombia, leading to the U.S. ally’s “denunciation before the world.” Another letter from Marquez details how Chavez plans to carry out a regional lobbying effort on the FARC’s behalf.
Perhaps most damning, the Colombian National Police conclude that the files also provide evidence that Chavez has funneled $300 million to FARC rebels.
It pays to recall that the FARC is not some enlightened independence movement. Even if their grievances were once legitimate—which is a debatable point—their methods remove all legitimacy from their cause. They use gas-cylinder bombs to kill indiscriminately. They carry out more than 100 kidnappings a year. They even hold American citizens hostage.
Inside Venezuela, as Javier Corrales details in Foreign Policy magazine, Chavez has “found a way to make authoritarianism fashionable again.” After all, he has rewritten the constitution, abolished the Senate, reconfigured the Supreme Court, created a private army loyal not to the state but to him, and taken control of the National Electoral Council, which verifies election results.
Chavez, who tried to seize power through a military coup in the early 1990s before his election in 1998, also controls the country’s oil consortium. Although Chavez has never cut off shipments into the U.S., he has threatened to do so. There could be more than bluster and bravado here: The Congressional Research Service has reported concerns inside Washington that Chavez might try to supplant his U.S. market with China. Given that Venezuela pumps an average of 1.5 million barrels of oil per day for the U.S.—or about 11 percent of net oil imports—the results would be devastating for the U.S. economy.
Far more worrisome is the State Department’s 2006 assessment that Chavez had “virtually ceased its cooperation in the global war on terror,” was seeking closer relations with Iran, and was tolerating terrorists on his territory. In fact, the State Department notes “the FARC often uses the Colombia-Venezuela border area for cross-border incursions and considers Venezuelan territory as a safe haven.”
Chavez is not just asking for war with his neighbors—he seems to be preparing for it. For example, he has acquired high-tech Su-30 fighter jets from Russia and large transport planes from Spain. He recently purchased 100,000 combat assault rifles from Russia and wants to buy 5,000 Russian-made Dragunov sniper rifles, which “have become one of the most lethal and effective weapons against American troops and their allies in Iraq,” according to a recent report by The International Herald Tribune.
“Sales like this, and other sales of military equipment and arms to Venezuela, don’t seem consistent with Venezuela’s needs,” deputy assistant secretary of state David Kramer told the Tribune. “It does raise questions about their ultimate use.”
If Chavez really wants war—and he may in order to divert attention from his disastrous economic policies—it won’t be a fair fight. Colombia’s highly professionalized, U.S-trained military is bigger and much stronger than Venezuela’s. The Washington Post provides the order of battle here. Unlike Venezuela’s small, albeit increasingly well-armed military, the 210,000-strong Colombian military is war-ready, having fought the FARC since Uribe’s election in 2002. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates puts it, “The Colombians can take care of themselves.”
Indeed, if Chavez gets his wish, it could be a death wish. Like the Argentine junta that invaded the Falklands a quarter-century ago, his bully regime would end up losing the war—and its grip on power.