Déjà Vu in Venezuelan-Colombian Relations, as War of Words Reignites: What Next for Chávez?

– Signing of U.S.-Colombian military base pact and border violence prompts a vigilant Chávez to tell his generals and the country’s citizens to “prepare for war.”
– Brazilian mediation machine cranks into action, but as Lula aide encourages dialogue and offers “help to monitor the [border] region,” Chávez proves less than fully receptive.
– “Chávez has gone too far,” asserts a weary El País editorial, while Semana asks, “How crazy is he?”
– Chávez isolates himself further, as water and electricity shortages plague Venezuela, generating public discontent.

Three months after COHA’s last memorandum on the subject of sizzling Venezuelan-Colombian relations posited that “the current suspension of diplomatic relations may last considerably longer than before,” that prediction is beginning to look almost conservative. Diplomacy has been off the agenda since late July, and since the beginning of November, relations between Caracas and Bogotá have plunged to uncharted depths under their current leaders. What began the previous week as a repeat of March 2008’s brief deployment of troops to Venezuela’s Western border – on that occasion a response by President Hugo Chávez to the assassination by Colombian troops of FARC leader Raúl Reyes on Ecuadoran soil– escalated last Sunday, November 8 into an outright call to arms. “Let´s not waste a day on our main mission: we prepare for war and help the people prepare for war,” Chávez implored the viewers of his weekly ‘Alo Presidente’ television show.

Events have since taken a fairly familiar course; regional furor was followed by an apparent climbdown from Chávez, who the following Wednesday insisted that his original comments had in fact been made with solely defensive intentions in mind, and had simply been misconstrued. Nevertheless, his angry rhetoric has continued and the international community has scrambled to attempt to diffuse the situation (largely in the form of diplomacy from Brasilia and Madrid). In spite of their apparently predictable pattern, a number of regional media outlets have speculated that these latest developments hint at a far more dangerous scenario in Venezuelan-Colombian relations than the almost jocose scripts seen before. Is this just our latest dose of Chávez’s bellicose but largely toothless rhetoric, or are we finally set to witness some truly explosive military action? In either case, what does this latest stand-off mean for the rapidly shifting fortunes of one of Latin America’s most extraordinary figures, the Venezuelan president?

Old Sagas, New Developments

As COHA has previously maintained, the rationale behind July’s suspension of bilateral relations by Chávez was twofold. On the one hand were Colombian accusations that weapons discovered in a FARC cache in Ecuador had originally been imported by the Venezuelan state. On the other was an agreement reached between Washington and Bogotá in mid-July, which would see the U.S. increase its military presence in Colombia with access to seven military bases. The U.S.-Colombian agreement was signed on October 30, making it the basis once again for the latest round of threats and recriminations between the two disputatious Andean neighbors.

Chávez’s ire over the pact’s signing has been compounded by a recent increase in the level of violence along the Colombia-Venezuela border. On November 2, two sergeants in the Venezuelan National Guard, Gerardo Zambrano and Senir López, were murdered near San Antonio de Táchira, a Venezuelan border town, and, according to El País, the most utilized crossing between Venezuela and Colombia. The newspaper reported that Chávez’s Vice-President and Minister of Defense, Ramón Carrizález, declared the deaths as marking the beginning of a conspiratorial plan by Bogotá against Venezuela, which was linked to the “installation” of the “seven Yankee bases” in Colombia. Carrizález had offered a similar interpretation after the bodies of 11 amateur footballers – mostly Colombians – were discovered on October 24. On November 1, BBC reported that he had labeled the victims as “part of a ‘paramilitary infiltration’ of Venezuela which was planning to emerge in Caracas and other major cities to destabilize the … government.’”

Despite Carrizález’s assertions, the culprits in both cases are still unknown. Some have suggested that the ELN (a much smaller Colombian guerrilla force than the FARC), were responsible for the October 24 crime, others that the National Guardsmen were killed by paramilitaries operating a cross-border protection and smuggling racket from San Antonio. In addition to these two sets of murders, the Venezuelan government claimed on October 27 to have arrested a number of members of the Colombian secret service (the DAS), who in the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Francisco Arias Cardenas were “captured carrying out actions of espionage.” Despite DAS’s long track record of lawlessness and complicity in atrocities connected to Colombia’s internal struggle, proof has not yet been forthcoming of these particular allegations.

The Economist recently reported the effects of Chávez’s freezing of trade with Colombia in the state of Táchira, saying that the move “has thrown many people out of work … aggravating a climate of lawlessness there.” Indeed, an El País report last week documented the actions of paramilitaries working in the border area whom, since greater restrictions were placed on the border crossing by Chávez around three weeks ago, have stepped up their threats, in particular against the National Guard. “We have taken the irrevocable decision to attack [the Guard and those collaborating with them] with violence,” asserted one group in late October. Seemingly concerned about the supposed Colombian origin of this string of recent violent incidents, on November 5 Chávez made his decision to send 15,000 troops to the border, and three days later made a televised call to arms.

An Imminent Threat to Security?

However, it is hard to believe that Chávez genuinely envisions the United States using its newly reinforced and expanded position in Colombia as a platform from which to launch a military attack. While he might need to worry about future administrations, for Barack Obama such a move would be politically detrimental – if not suicidal – and hardly features high on his list of foreign policy concerns. As for Colombia itself, as far as El País was concerned last week, “although pleading on its knees to Washington, not for all the gold in the world was it going to attack [Venezuela].”

Without a doubt this is an exaggeration, as economic concerns are one of the major disincentives for a war between the two countries, a point which COHA made in its August communiqué. Currently, Colombia is worried about the impact of a conflict on its trade with Venezuela – give Bogotá all the gold in the world, and this barrier to confrontation would evaporate. In addition, the notion that Colombian paramilitaries are operating across the border is not particularly far-fetched, even if their threat to Venezuelan national security is probably being exaggerated by Caracas.

Nevertheless, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has demonstrated a degree of calm in this instance where, regardless of the validity of his concerns, Chávez would have done well to emulate him. While Colombian officials apparently met to discuss their capability of defeating Caracas in the event of a conflict, their primary reaction was to refer Chávez’s remarks to the United Nations last Wednesday. Moreover, when the Colombian navy captured four Venezuelan National Guardsmen in Colombian waters in the Vichada border province on Friday, Uribe sent them home the following day, saying: “They should carry back the message that here, there is brotherly affection for Venezuela and that affection is unbreakable.”

In contrast, on Saturday night at a ceremony to highlight the plight of the Cuban Five – who are imprisoned in the United States having been convicted of espionage after monitoring terrorist groups in Florida hostile to the current Cuban regime – Chávez responded to the Colombian overtures by saying “I have nothing to discuss with Uribe the mafioso.” Earlier in the day, he had rejected Brasilia’s offers of help in mediation and monitoring along the border, claiming that it would violate Venezuela’s sovereignty. Appearing on the latest edition of ‘Alo Presidente’ this Sunday, Chávez reiterated his fear that the U.S. intended to spy on Venezuela, rather than use its agreement with Bogotá for the declared anti-narcotics purposes. According to El Universal, he suggested that Obama and Uribe should “go and jump in a lake.”

Nevertheless, Chávez has always been, if not ‘all mouth and no trousers,’ a politician for whom there has existed something of an ‘implementation gap’ between rhetoric and inevitable inaction. As the Economist put it last week, “Chávez’s belligerent rhetoric trades at a substantial discount.” Indeed, Semana concluded recently that rather than being a sign of madness, he has used this rhetorical tool throughout his political career merely as a means of harnessing support. However, the Washington Post and the Economist last week both cited a poll carried out in mid-September by research firm Datanálisis, that found Venezuelans opposed war with Colombia by a margin of four to one. If a war would be near-impossible for Venezuela to win given the inferiority of its armed forces against a combined Colombian-U.S. defense force, it would be even harder for the effort to succeed without popular support. This is a fact which – along with the unlikelihood of any U.S. intention to attack Caracas – Chávez must privately acknowledge.

Chávez Floundering?

This altercation is perhaps not so much a threat to Latin American security, as it is to the credibility of Chávez’s Bolivarian project and Venezuela’s potential standing in the region. In other words, the Venezuelan President may have cried wolf one too many times. If the reaction of Brazil is to become the yardstick by which such things are measured, then this time Chávez’s international problems could be considerable.

As recently as October 29, international media outlets carried photographs of Chávez and Brazilian President Lula celebrating a breakthrough in regional relations, as Brazil’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Caracas’ long-running attempt to achieve full membership in Mercosur – the common market of the Southern Cone. The matter was due to be put on the Brazilian Senate agenda this past Wednesday, November 11, and was widely expected to pass. However, allies of Lula, and thus Chávez, put off the planned vote as a consequence of the latest “crisis.” Even if recent events fail to hinder the Senate’s decision when the vote is rescheduled, Chávez still has to negotiate Paraguayan approval of Venezuela’s membership, which will not automatically be achieved.

Moreover, as last Thursday’s El País editorial pointed out, Chávez’s rhetoric could now be seen as reinforcing Colombia’s rationale in seeking a heightened U.S. military presence – at the very least, it provides Uribe’s administration with a handy justification and the ability to regularly utilize the refrain of ‘self defense.’ In taking such a brash rhetorical stand, Chávez could be shooting himself in the foot in the long as well as the short term when it comes to criticizing the actions of his enemy and neighbor. If Chávez is genuinely worried about the security policies that Bogotá is pursuing, such as an apparently lax attitude towards the re-emergence of paramilitaries, then he has chosen a poor method of combating them. Even though Uribe is more sinister than prudent at heart, aggressive rhetoric now will ensure Chávez is taken less seriously in the future. For a man so apparently keen on the idea of regional cooperation, Chávez has been far too quick to shun other ways of expressing his concern. There is little doubt that many of his fellow leaders are uncomfortable with the actions of Uribe’s Colombia, and joining them in a chorus of concern through a regional forum would have been a much more constructive way forward.

Finally, not the least of Chávez’s worries are on the domestic front. Not only do an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans disapprove of their leader’s approach towards Bogotá, but increasing numbers are disillusioned with their day-to-day lives under Chávez. Since November 2, water has been rationed in Venezuela; the same day on which the government introduced a plan to save electricity. In Caracas, each of the city’s neighborhoods is without running water for at least two days every week. Chávez has urged the public to take “lightening showers” of just three minutes, and to become accustomed to bathing in the early hours of the morning, armed with a flashlight. Even before these recent austerity measures, in early October, Datanálisis found 66 percent of Venezuelans dissatisfied with the government’s moves to resolve the electricity crisis. Moreover, the same survey found “70 percent critical of Chávez’s policies to create employment” and that 87 percent thought the government had done little to ensure the personal security of its citizens, according to El País.

One Step too Many?

Citing the case of Leopoldo Galtieri and Argentina’s 1982 Falklands war with the British, an editorial in the Washintgon Post last Thursday discussed the chances of conflict on this occasion: “In the annals of the region’s authoritarian populism, stranger things have happened.” While asking “how crazy is [Chávez]?” this past Saturday, Semana seized upon this musing, suggesting “that is what some in Colombia think. And nobody who knows him would dare say that [war] will not happen.” And in evaluating the “crisis in Venezuela,” last Thursday’s El País editorial asserted that this time, “Chávez has gone too far.”

Has Chávez gone too far? The answer to that question depends on how it is interpreted. He has isolated his country from a key trading partner, and may have slowed – if not halted – its progress towards a common market with a host of potential partners at exactly the time Venezuela is struggling to cope with providing basic utilities. In addition, from a domestic point of view, he is faced with a population which is overwhelmingly opposed to the country entering a conflict with its neighbor, and becoming increasingly dissatisfied with its standard of living. Militarily, Venezuela cannot seriously be considered on the brink of war, and is extremely unlikely to be in the near future. In this sense, the president, by virtue of his characteristic inaction, has not gone too far. But ask a resident of Caracas – or, indeed, Táchira – that same question, and the response is likely to differ. One thing Chávez does have on his side is time; he is only halfway through his term. To reverse the situation will require him to stop his attempt at masking domestic problems with noisy foreign policy implications, and to put away his “drums of war” (as El Tiempo put it this Sunday) – even though this rhetoric is seemingly so fundamental to his political project that they are unlikely to be decommissioned in the near future.