Chavez on the warpath

Venezuela seems to be girding for battle with Colombia

Even as Barack Obama continues to consider deploying more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, another conflict involving U.S. soldiers has been intensifying in Washington’s own backyard. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has recently exceeded his traditional incendiary anti-American rhetoric with talk of war with neighbouring Colombia, a long-time U.S. ally which since 2000 has hosted U.S. troops as part of an anti-drug effort. Chávez has gone so far as to mass 15,000 soldiers on his border with Colombia, where in recent weeks there has been a spate of slayings related to tensions between Venezuelan and Colombian paramilitary groups. On Nov. 8, he ordered his military to prepare for possible armed conflict. “The best way to avoid war is preparing for it,” Chávez told officers on a weekly TV and radio program. Of the U.S., Chávez said, “The empire is more threatening than ever,” and warned Obama to not “make a mistake” in ordering an attack on Venezuela.

The object of Chávez’s fury is an agreement signed on Oct. 30 between the conservative government in Bogotá and Washington that will increase access to seven Colombian military bases for U.S. troops, aircraft and warships assisting Colombia with its struggle against drug traffickers. The 10-year agreement does nothing to change a U.S. law that limits U.S. military personnel and contractors in Colombia to 1,400. While Álvaro Uribe’s government said the agreement limits American activity to Colombian territory, it has made neighbours nervous about American intentions, with Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador expressing concern. Chávez has gone further, condemning the deal as a step toward launching a military offensive against Venezuela, and claiming that the bases would be used for espionage purposes against his regime.

It has been a rapid turnaround by Chávez regarding the new U.S. administration. In April, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, Obama and Chávez met for the first time and exchanged handshakes and pats on the back. Chávez gave him a book about American interference in Latin America, while Obama pledged a new era of respect. But those positive atmospherics have dissolved. Chávez is now calling on Obama to give up his Nobel Peace Prize. “The United States government is a champion of cynicism, and Obama should give up his prize in the name of dignity, decorum and respect,” said Chávez. Of Obama’s promise of “change,” he declared, “What changes? The coup in Honduras, the bases in Colombia, the U.S. Navy presence in the Caribbean? This is a threat to peace in Latin America.”

It’s hard to tell how seriously to take Chávez’s latest bluster. After all, this is the man who called George W. Bush “the devil.” Most observers agree that he is trying to rally his country against a foreign enemy in order to distract his people from major problems at home. In addition to high crime and unemployment, Venezuelans are suffering from mounting shortages of electricity and water rationing, despite the country’s oil, gas and coal wealth. Chávez has taken to touting conservation. In October, he urged citizens to limit their showers to three minutes. “I’ve counted and I don’t end up stinking,” he said. “I guarantee it.” Says Michael Shifter, vice-president of Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington: “He is aware that things are not going well and he is not able to govern the country effectively, and that is reflected in poll numbers of declining support. This is a convenient way to divert attention and try to rally the country behind a national cause.”

However, the sabre-rattling is coming in the midst of a massive arms buildup. Chávez said in September that his government has received a $2.2-billion line of credit from Moscow to buy 92 Russian-made T-72 tanks as well as a long-range Russian anti-aircraft missile system. Chávez said the acquisitions were in response to the U.S. threat, but the U.S. State Department said the buildup outpaced all other Latin American countries, and threatened regional stability by potentially setting off an arms race in the region. Chávez has also been making Washington nervous by developing a friendly relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Earlier this month, the Chávez government announced it is co-operating with Russia to develop a nuclear energy program, and that it is receiving help from Tehran to locate uranium reserves within its borders.

Meanwhile, the situation on the Colombian border, a shadowy zone where drug smugglers and anti-Bogotá Marxist FARC rebels are active, has already been violent. Two Venezuelan national guard soldiers were shot near the border in early November (authorities blamed right-wing Colombian militias). And 11 people, mostly Colombians, had been killed in October; they were believed to be members of paramilitary groups, possibly killed by leftist rebels. Venezuela’s vice-president, Ramon Carrizalez, said the killings were part of a “destabilization plan linked to the base agreement with the U.S.”

Some in Washington warn that Chávez’s posturing should not be dismissed precisely because of the volatile situation at the border. “This is something that should be taken very seriously,” says Roger Noriega, the former assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. “With elements of two countries on a border, the sort of irregular forces that operate across that border—be that the FARC or paramilitaries—could draw these countries into a confrontation that neither one needs.”

The U.S-Colombian agreement, negotiated under the Bush administration and completed under Obama, allows the use of the bases for counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency activities in Colombia. Shifter says that the deal was instigated by Bogotá. “The Colombians are feeling nervous and they really pushed for it. The U.S. went along,” he says. The agreement does not oblige Washington to provide any military support to Colombia should Venezuela move against it, says Shifter—though Colombians like to think it will, especially given evidence that Chávez is giving sanctuary to the FARC, and allowing them to regroup on Venezuelan territory. (Computer files and emails captured in a raid on FARC rebels in Ecuador last year provided evidence of military and intelligence officials in the Chávez government helping the insurgents.)

“The agreement was sold that way, and I think a lot of Colombians believed that there would be a greater chance that the U.S. would respond,” says Shifter. “That it would be like NATO. The U.S. might or might not, but there is nothing in the agreement that obliges them to.” Nonetheless, he predicts that with or without the agreement, “I think if it was clearly an aggressive act by Chávez, the U.S. would come to Colombia’s aid. It wouldn’t stand by. The U.S. would be forceful in trying to stop the hostilities.”

Noriega, the former Bush administration official, doubts whether Obama would have the “stomach” for a military entanglement in Latin America. But the prospect of one is enough to make countries already apprehensive about the U.S.-Colombian deal even more nervous. Indeed, a major problem with the agreement seems to be the way it was rolled out—with insufficient explanation and assurances to neighbouring nations such as Brazil to counter concerns and opposition. “There wasn’t any sinister motive here, but it was badly managed by both the U.S. and Colombia,” says Shifter.

The Obama administration has so far reacted to Chávez’s bluster by calling for international mediation to help Venezuela and Colombia resolve their border troubles. “We are very much aware of recent tensions along the Venezuela and Colombia border,” said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. “I certainly don’t think this is about the United States, but we certainly would encourage dialogue between Venezuela and Colombia and a peaceful resolution of the situation along their border.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to make a trip to the region soon, with a particular interest in shoring up relations with Brazil.

So far, Chávez has rejected the idea of dialogue. This week he called his Colombian counterpart Uribe a “mobster” and said there was no possibility of negotiations with the “treasonous” government in Bogotá. He added, “He will be considered by history to be a disgraceful leader who turned his homeland over to the Yankees.”

Noriega says there should be more international pressure on Chávez, and more support from U.S. allies for America’s role in Colombia’s war on narco-trafficking. “I think, frankly, the U.S. should step forward and—with its neighbours, not the least of which would be Canada—say everybody needs to recognize the U.S. has a tangible relationship with Colombia and interests there,” he says. Noriega adds that the Obama administration should do more to “call attention to the threat that Chávez represents, and put some of our neighbours on the spot to take a position on these things before it’s too late and punches start flying.”