Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Calm Down, Chávez

War-mongering Venezuela is stirring up trouble down south again. But will he really go to war with Colombia this time around?

PABLO COZZAGLIO/AFP/Getty Images
PABLO COZZAGLIO/AFP/Getty Images

Hugo Chávez’s Sunday TV and radio program Aló Presidente is not exactly known for its brevity or reassuring tone. The Venezuelan president’s chief communications vehicle — the 21st century, socialist version of FDR’s notably less incendiary "fireside chats" — often signals his preferred next steps in the 11th year of his grandiose "Bolivarian" reformation of the country. 

So it was cause for concern when Chávez used last Sunday’s program to declare in his characteristically combative style, "Let’s not waste a day in our main aim to prepare for war and help the people prepare for war." In a politically unsettled and polarized South America, where arms purchases have nearly doubled over the past five years, reaching almost $50 billion last year, could his Venezuela be the spark needed to light a conflict?

The target of Chávez’s ominous warning is Colombia, Venezuela’s Andean neighbor. The two countries are deeply interconnected; they share a porous and increasingly combustible border and have had a trade relationship worth upwards of $7 billion. Chávez and Colombian president Álvaro Uribe (now entering his eighth year in office) are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and have long mistrusted one another. They have similar take-charge styles of governing, which has made relations even testier and the two leaders’ occasional compromises all the more impressive.

But Chávez’s war talk has now escalated tensions between the countries to a whole new level. The bilateral relationship had already taken a sharp turn for the worse, when Chávez decided in August to close the border to Colombian manufactured goods, preferring instead to buy from Brazil. Exports dropped 50 percent the following month. And while the shutdown is not airtight, the clampdown has hurt; Colombia was Venezuela’s second-largest trading partner. Not only has the commercial relationship suffered, but, for the first time, there have been deaths — at least a dozen — on both sides of the border. Massive deportations have sent Colombians back home, and arrests of accused spies have exacerbated the diplomatic spat. Even before the crisis erupted Sunday, Chávez had ordered some 15,000 troops to the border.

The sources of the mistrust run both ways. Uribe is convinced that Chávez is providing support to the leftist FARC insurgency, which has been seeking to topple the Colombian government since the 1960s. And, though less plausibly, Chávez is just as confident that Colombia, with ample and sustained military support from the United States — and particularly a recently unveiled 10-year agreement to give the United States access to seven Colombian bases for counterinsurgency and anti-narcotics operations — poses a threat to Venezuela’s security and therefore must be resisted. Chávez’s worst nightmare is that the Yankees are coming.

So for Chávez, the threat from the United States (acting through the proxy of Colombia, he believes) justifies an arms buildup. He is determined to protect Venezuela from a possible invasion launched by the "imperio" (empire) to his north, however improbable that prospect may be. Since 2005, Chávez has bought between $5 billion and $7 billion in military equipment from Russia, including tanks and advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Cuban President Fidel Castro, Chávez’s mentor, has also weighed in on the U.S.-Colombia nexus, alleging in a Nov. 6 newspaper column that the base accord is equivalent to the annexation of Colombia by the United States.

Both Bogotá and Washington have been trying to control the considerable political fallout since the base agreement was leaked in August. Suspicions of U.S. military motives remain, not only in Caracas, but throughout the continent. South America’s strong reaction could have been averted with some diplomatic groundwork, such as prior, high-level consultations with natural allies like Brazil. But the Obama administration had apparently miscalculated how big an effect such seemingly narrow questions can have in the hemisphere.

Chávez is taking advantage of the mishandling of the U.S.-Colombia accord to inflame bilateral strains and advance his own political agenda at home. Heated rhetoric aimed at Colombia is a convenient way to divert public attention from Venezuela’s mounting "soft spots" and vulnerabilities, including uncontrolled criminality, high inflation, decaying infrastructure, water shortages, and electricity rationing.

Ramping up the rhetoric is not only a defensive move; Chávez has also been on the attack against two opposition governors of states bordering Colombia. Any escalation in the conflict would give him a handy pretext to usurp authority from these local elected officials as he has done with others. Since winning a referendum in February that removed term limits, Chávez has been systematically tightening his grip.

Other countries in the region, Brazil for example, could help defuse tensions and prevent the sort of violent border incident that could set off a serious military conflagration. To their credit, both Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero have offered their services, including as mediators between the Colombian and Venezuelan governments. Uribe has appealed to the U.N. Security Council and the Organization of American States to intervene. Latin American leaders will meet at the Ibero-American Summit at end of November in Portugal, where they might productively tackle such a worrisome situation.

As risky as conditions have become between Venezuela and Colombia — and external help is warranted — there are factors that militate against things getting out of hand. A military confrontation would be a costly escalation for all concerned. And fortunately, there does not appear to be interest or public support to go down that road in either country. It is questionable that the Venezuelan armed forces would be prepared to engage in such a senseless military adventure. Further, despite the bilateral rupture, both countries have profound ties; more than 2 million Colombians live in Venezuela. Encouragingly, after Chávez’s alarm last Sunday, reasonable voices on both sides of the border — acutely aware of how much is at stake — have wisely called on everyone to calm down and take a deep breath.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.