Shadow Government

Drawing the line on Hugo Chávez

By José R. Cárdenas Ordinarily, it’s easy to dismiss the rhetoric of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as just so much bombast meant to sate the appetites of his most radical followers. Witness, for example, his recently expressed admiration for Carlos the Jackal, Robert Mugabe, and, yes, Idi Amin. Other times, however, Chávez wanders into territory ...

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks to the press after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas on November 27, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Juan BARRETO (Photo credit should read JUANN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

By José R. Cárdenas

Ordinarily, it’s easy to dismiss the rhetoric of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as just so much bombast meant to sate the appetites of his most radical followers. Witness, for example, his recently expressed admiration for Carlos the Jackal, Robert Mugabe, and, yes, Idi Amin.

Other times, however, Chávez wanders into territory of strategic interest to the United States, and his rhetoric, not to mention his actions, cannot be ignored.

Chávez’s latest saber-rattling vis-à-vis neighboring Colombia is just such an occasion.

What has set off the Venezuelan strongman this time is an October 30th Defense Cooperation Agreement between Colombia and the United States that allows U.S. counternarcotics air patrols to move from a base in Ecuador to bases in Colombia. (The U.S. presence at a base in Manta, Ecuador, was terminated by leftist President Rafael Correa.)

Since then, Chávez has been waving the bloody shirt, calling the agreement part of a plot to destabilize his regime and bellowing on Venezuelan TV, “Let’s not waste a day on our main aim: to prepare for war….” He then ordered 15,000 troops to the Venezuelan-Colombian border.

Most sober analysts downplay the risk of an imminent outbreak of hostilities between the two countries, attributing Chávez’s latest hysterics to an attempt to divert domestic attention away from deteriorating economic conditions in Venezuela, including electricity and water shortages, and his own declining poll numbers. And they are probably right — this time.

The problem going forward is this: The Venezuelan economy has just begun to free-fall, as outlays of petro-dollars are no longer able to paper over Venezuela’s systemic economic deficiencies under Chávez’s mismanagement. Private sector investment and output is declining, infrastructure is breaking down, and an overreliance on government spending is choking off growth. The result, to be played out over the next few months, is likely to be increasing discontent among a populace already fed up with shortages, unemployment, and skyrocketing street crime.

Combine this with the lawless situation on the Venezuelan-Colombian border, where Colombian and Venezuelan troops mix with murderous guerrillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitaries that have set up shop to take advantage of Chávez’s lax attitude towards cocaine trafficking through Venezuelan territory, and you have a tinderbox that could combust on the slightest miscalculation, or irresponsible action.

It is incumbent on the Obama administration to prevent that by dispelling any ambiguity about where U.S. interests lie if this cold war were to go suddenly hot. It is a perfect opportunity for newly installed Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Arturo Valenzuela, a serious and well-respected scholar of the region, to junk the administration’s campaign talking points on “improving relations with Venezuela” — which sends the absolutely wrong signal to Chávez — stop being so defensive about the Colombia agreement (whose badly managed rollout helped to spur the crisis), and deliver a private and direct message to Chávez that the administration would consider any military confrontation with Colombia a direct threat to the strategic interests of the United States.

This is not about our own saber-rattling or mimicking Chávez’s microphone diplomacy that only inflames tensions, but engaging in forceful but quiet diplomacy to prevent any outbreak of hostilities on the border.

Indeed, successive U.S. administrations have invested too much into our strategic partnership with Colombia to tolerate the likes of Hugo Chávez attempting to roll back its multiple successes. (Ample evidence already exists of Chávez providing safe haven and arms to Colombian narcoterrorists.) Since 2000, the U.S. has spent some $6 billion on Plan Colombia, a counternarcotics and counterinsurgency plan that has rescued the country from the grip of the narcoterrorists and paramilitaries. Today, Colombia is a safer and more prosperous country under the leadership of President Álvaro Uribe, with crucial support from the United States. (Incidentally, the capstone of this successful partnership was to be congressional approval of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, but that deal was shelved by Democratic leaders in Congress last year and Obama has shown no inclination to revive it.)

But the peace has yet to be won in Colombia. The narcoterrorists have been seriously degraded by President Uribe’s aggressive prosecution of the war against them, but they have not been eliminated.

Whether we like it or not, the politics (and economics) of oil means we are probably stuck with Chávez for some time to come. But for Hugo Chávez the oil card must not be a license to threaten neighbors with war and destabilizing the region. The Obama administration needs to remind him of that fact.

JUANN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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