By Matthew Walter and Helen Murphy
March 3 (Bloomberg) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s orders to close his Bogota embassy and send tanks to the border raise tensions beyond his previous rhetoric and to the point where miscalculation could trigger a military clash.
Chavez, who ordered 10 armored battalions to the border yesterday, said Colombia’s air strike March 1 on a rebel camp in Ecuadorean territory risks a regional war. He pledged to support Ecuador under any circumstances. The raid killed Raul Reyes, reputed to be second in command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
“This is an alarming degeneration in the region and has ominous overtones that could lead to provocative developments,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based research group. “This is a situation that’s unraveling and both sides need to stand back or it could degenerate into confrontation.”
An expanded military presence along the Colombia-Venezuela border — a cauldron of paramilitary, drug trafficking and guerrilla activity where Colombian troops operate regularly — increases the danger that growing diplomatic hostility between the two nations will lead to violence.
“There’s no question of the enormous political tension now and any miscue could set off a conflict,” said Michael Shifter, a vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “It’s impossible to rule it out.”
Chavez, who has a history of verbally attacking the U.S. and its allies, may be trying to stir up nationalist sentiment at a time when he’s faltering politically, said Myles Frechette, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia from 1994 to 1997.
Voters in December rejected Chavez’s plan to rewrite the constitution, his first electoral defeat since taking office, while crime and food shortages are cutting into his popularity.
“This is largely posturing and beating his chest,” Frechette said in a telephone interview. “The economic situation in Venezuela isn’t good.”
Venezuela’s dependence on Colombia’s food exports and the Colombian military’s superior training, make a wide-scale war unlikely, said Liliana Fasciani, a legal philosophy professor at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.
The Colombia air strike on the camp of Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group, know as the FARC, took place 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) inside Ecuador and killed at least 12 other fighters.
In a response to Ecuador’s protest of violation of its territory, Colombia’s Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo sent a letter to his Ecuadorean counterpart laying out the course of events that led the attack. Colombia “never intended to disrespect the sovereignty or integrity of its brother nation” the letter said.
Colombia apologized for sending its helicopters across the frontier. Still, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s spokesman Cesar Velasquez said computer files retrieved from a FARC camp in Venezuela showed Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa may have had ties to the guerrillas. He said the government would provide evidence.
“We’re going to strengthen our border with Colombia,” Chavez said yesterday in comments broadcast by state television. “If Colombia tried something similar here, we’d have to respond decisively.”
Ecuador’s Correa last night said in a nationwide television address that he had “ordered the mobilization of troops on the northern border” with Colombia.
Moment of Silence
Chavez said the U.S. was behind the “cowardly” attack against the FARC, with which he’s strengthened ties since he began negotiations in 2007 to secure the release of its hostages. The FARC have released six captives to Chavez in 2008. The FARC holds as many as 750 captives and has a policy of executing them if troops approach its camps or attempt any rescue.
Chavez called for a moment of silence during yesterday’s television broadcast to honor Reyes, a member of the FARC’s seven-person ruling committee. In January, the Venezuelan leader asked governments around the world to remove the rebel group from their list of terrorist groups.
“The Colombian armed forces are controlled by the Pentagon,” he said yesterday.
Colombian opposition parties offered Uribe their support, with former President Cesar Gaviria, head of the opposition Liberal Party, calling for Chavez to respect Uribe, Colombian daily newspaper El Tiempo reported.
“We can’t understand how the actions of our government and our armed forces be interpreted as an act of aggression against Venezuela,” Gaviria said.
The guerrillas last week said they won’t free any more prisoners until the Colombian government removes troops from an area in the western part of the country.
“We’re monitoring the situation,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Crawford, Texas, where President George W. Bush was spending the weekend. “This is an odd reaction by Venezuela to Colombia’s efforts against the FARC, a terrorist organization that continues to hold Colombians, Americans and others hostage.”
Relations between Chavez and Uribe have unraveled since Uribe withdrew support for Chavez’s negotiations with the FARC last year. Yesterday’s decision to close the Venezuelan Embassy comes two months after Chavez recalled in his ambassador.
The Venezuelan president stepped up verbal attacks on Uribe in recent months, criticizing the Colombian leader’s ties with the U.S., which Chavez calls the “empire.” He regularly accuses Colombia and the U.S. of trying to destabilize his socialist government. Yesterday, Chavez called Uribe a liar, and a “lackey” of the U.S.
To contact the reporter on this story: Matthew Walter in Caracas at email@example.com ; Helen Murphy in Bogota at Hmurphy1@bloomberg.net .