Venezuela – Colombia Relations in Limbo: Will Chávez burn the bridge?

In response to Colombian charges that weapons found in a FARC arms cache were supplied by Venezuela, Hugo Chávez withdrew his ambassador from Bogotá and once again froze Venezuela – Colombia relations. According to reports by the Uribe Administration, three Swedish AT-4 rocket launchers which formed part of a shipment sold in the 1980s to the Venezuelan army were recovered during a raid of a FARC guerrilla camp in the remote southeastern section of Colombia. A Swedish Foreign Ministry official publicly confirmed that the anti-tank weapons had been exported to Venezuela over twenty years ago, and the Swedish government has demanded an explanation for what appears to be a clear violation of end-user licenses. “We are not going to accept this irresponsibility,” Chávez told a televised cabinet meeting. “We will freeze relations with Colombia.”

Chávez’s Response
Chávez has characteristically accused the Colombian government of presenting false evidence as a means to advance its own political agenda, and he was bound to suspect an ulterior motive when the arms cache allegation came to light, particularly due to its timing. The alleged evidence oddly remained dormant for an entire year before finally surfacing last week. Still, a more appropriate and less suspicious response by the Venezuelan leader might have been to deny his or his government’s personal involvement, while acknowledging the possibility that the three rocket launchers could have simply “slipped through the cracks.” Such a course of action could have helped to defuse, rather than aggravate the situation. Currently, the evidence available does not convincingly prove that the Chávez government sold or willingly transferred these or any other arms to the rebels. According to Jane’s Americas analyst Anna Gilmour, Venezuelan arsenals are notorious for their “seepage,” most often orchestrated by corrupt officers. However, rather than consider and address this possibility, Chávez chose to embark upon the familiar road of unqualified hostility that has prevailed in recent Venezuela-Colombia bilateral relations, given what an irresistible target the acerbic Uribe always proves to be.

The Venezuelan president’s response bears a significant resemblance to the action taken by him in March of last year, when Chávez shut down the Colombian embassy in Venezuela after Colombian troops entered Ecuador in a raid that killed FARC leader Raul Reyes. At the time, Chávez called Uribe a “mafioso,” a liar and a “lackey” of the U.S., adding that the attack on Reyes was “cowardly.” He then ordered his military to move its tank battalions to the Colombian border and commented, “this could be the beginning of a war.” Yet, while tensions were clearly running high, war was never considered a likely outcome due to Venezuela’s close trade relationship with Colombia. “This is more of Chávez making a racket than any kind of real threat,” said Liliana Fasciani, a legal philosophy professor at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas in a rather pervasive comment at the time. Sure enough, diplomatic ties were restored merely a week later. It is anyone’s guess as to how long it will take this time.

Source of Conflict
Despite the problems it could cause for both countries, the current suspension of diplomatic relations may last considerably longer than before. While accusations regarding Venezuela’s alleged role in the illegal transfer of Swedish-manufactured anti-tank weapons to FARC guerrillas infuriated Chávez and provoked his decision to freeze relations with Colombia, it was Uribes’s mid-July approval of Washington’s request to increase the American troop presence in Colombia that created the initial tension. The pending agreement, which would give the U.S. military broad access to seven Colombian military bases, will allow the U.S. to further carry out counternarcotics and counterinsurgency surveillance in the country. The proposed deal prompted a furious response from Chávez because it could, as he claimed, open the doors to “people who constantly attack us and are preparing new aggressions.”

If Chávez is truly innocent of any complicity with the guerrillas, the implementation of this military base plan in Colombia could convince the Venezuelan leader that Washington is attempting to build its case for a U.S.- led invasion mounted from Colombia, where he declares “a Yankee military force” is accumulating. A common military strategy on the part of U.S. intelligence operations is for the Pentagon to obtain one major facility from host governments from which to mount its local military operations (e.g. Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras). With Chávez apparently convinced that Colombia now harbors an adversary with aggressive intentions, and with Colombia now convinced that Venezuela, in turn, has been sedulously assisting the FARC, one wonders if the present diplomatic fracas will be resolved quickly, as it has been in the past, without further incidence. A settlement that would successfully reestablish diplomatic ties may be harder to come by this time for trust is severely lacking on both sides.

The Economics Behind the Freeze
Caracas’ threat to sever all diplomatic ties with Bogotá is only half the equation, as Chávez has also threatened to freeze commerce and expropriate Colombian-owned businesses inside his borders. In spite of the considerable political tension right now, it is hard to imagine that Chávez will follow through on these economic threats. Venezuela is Colombia’s second-largest commercial partner, and Colombian exports to Venezuela totaled $2.25 billion in the first five months of 2009 alone. Moreover, an interruption in bilateral trade flow would likely hurt Venezuela the most, as the country imports both manufactured goods and roughly two-thirds of the food that it consumes from Colombia. On this issue, Jimena Zuniga, a New York-based analyst at Barclays Capital, commented that “Venezuela would suffer in terms of worsening food shortages, increasing already high inflation and [putting] more pressure on the fiscal deficit.”

That is not to say that Colombia can easily offset the loss of the massive export market in neighboring Venezeula. Of the overall $7.2 billion in trade recorded between the two neighboring countries last year, roughly $6 billion was represented by Colombian exports. “It is not easy for Colombia to find a market that absorbs $6 billion [of our exports], but it is certainly not easy for Venezuela to find another partner that will supply products with good quality and price,” said Colombian Commerce Minister Luis Guillermo Plata. Clearly, a rupture in trade would introduce a lose-lose scenario, something government officials in Bogota have openly expressed concern about. Yet, anxiety over the current situation continues to be one sided, as Chávez remains stubbornly confident in Venezuela’s ability to find new markets, an attitude undeniably meant to reinforce the “credibility” of his recent threats. “We can get them [goods] from any other country,” Chávez said, suggesting that Brazil would be the alternate source. He also has threatened to shut down an oil-pipeline that supplies 5.7 million to 8.5 million cubic meters of natural gas daily from Colombia to Venezuela. “The gas that comes from Colombia isn’t indispensable for us. We could shut down that gas pipeline,” he declared.

Bolivian exporters did say they would be prepared to take advantage of the opportunity to increase shipments of textiles and other goods to Venezuela if Chávez chooses to follow through on his threats, but the numbers clearly indicate that the economic consequences would be very damaging for Venezuela regardless of the replacement strategy employed.

A Vacant Threat?
Chávez has never shown a willingness to go beyond the break-off point when it comes to coercive diplomacy, and it is quite evident that a complete break in ties could do serious damage to Venezuela’s economy. When Chávez comes to this realization – most likely when his search for a replacement trade partner bears poor results – diplomacy probably will be restored, as neither side has anything to gain from a prolonged freeze in diplomatic relations. However, if Chávez decides to block trade, Colombia may not have reason to be overly concerned. In past disputes between the two countries, Venezuelan officials only shut down the border for a few days, and there is little reason to believe that a renewed closure of the border would last any longer.

Chávez is raising the volume of his voice, but actions speak louder than words. When it comes to action, Chávez tends to cross bridges with no intention of burning them in his wake. However, surplus goodwill for the Uribe Administration is a regional commodity that is currently in short supply.