With the intervention of the Organization of American States
(OAS), it looks like the war clouds hanging over Colombia
may be clearing. But since the cause of this dangerous storm system remains—namely,
Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and his growing ties to the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—Washington’s
allies in Colombia
should brace for more heavy weather. In fact, we may just now be entering the
eye of the storm.
As is so often the case with bullies and aggressors, Chavez
blames those who are defending themselves for triggering this crisis. Colombia did launch a military strike on FARC
safe havens in Ecuador, but
it did so in pursuit of rebel leaders who are responsible for decades of indiscriminate
death and destruction inside Colombia’s
borders. Among those targeted and killed were Raul Reyes, a key leader of the
FARC, along with 23 of his aides and guerilla fighters. (Ecuador’s rant
about violations of sovereignty is a subject for another essay, but this much
we know: When a country is unable or unwilling to prevent its territory from
being used as a launching pad for attacks into another sovereign country, it
invites external intervention.)
In response to Colombia’s action, Chavez sent thousands of
troops to the Venezuelan-Colombian frontier in late February, turning a case of
self-defense and hot pursuit into a full-blown continental crisis.
Even after the OAS agreed to set up a commission to study
the incident and brokered a nuanced compromise resolution that called for the
“sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ecuador” to be respected, while
making sure not to condemn Colombia for defending its own territory, Chavez
continued his saber-rattling and ordered his military commanders to complete
the deployment of 10,000 troops and scores of tanks.
If the move was provocative and unnecessary before the OAS
acted, it’s even more so now—that is, unless Chavez has something to be worried
Laptop computers seized during the Reyes raid appear to
prove what many have suspected—that Chavez and his intermediaries are supporting
the thuggish FARC, which traffics in drugs to fund its killings and kidnappings.
(The UN estimates that the FARC generates $204 million a year from the drug
As AP reports,
“If authentic, the computer files suggest Chavez has been in league with the
rebels for more than a decade.” And they appear to be authentic.
The files contain detailed notes and discussions about a
Venezuelan emissary to the FARC, Ivan Marquez, who has made it clear to his
contacts that Chavez wants to undermine Colombia’s tenacious president, Alvaro
Uribe, while helping to change the FARC’s “international pariah status,” in the
words of the AP report.
The computer files quote Marquez as saying that Venezuela intends to use information from the
FARC to build a consensus against Colombia,
leading to the U.S.
ally’s “denunciation before the world.” Another letter from Marquez details how
Chavez plans to carry out a regional lobbying effort on the FARC’s behalf.
Perhaps most damning, the Colombian National Police conclude
that the files also provide evidence that Chavez has funneled $300 million to
It pays to recall that the FARC is not some enlightened
independence movement. Even if their grievances were once legitimate—which is a
debatable point—their methods remove all legitimacy from their cause. They use gas-cylinder
bombs to kill indiscriminately. They carry out more than 100 kidnappings a
year. They even hold American citizens hostage.
as Javier Corrales details in Foreign
Policy magazine, Chavez has “found a way to make authoritarianism
fashionable again.” After all, he has rewritten the constitution, abolished the
Senate, reconfigured the Supreme Court, created a private army loyal not to the
state but to him, and taken control of the National Electoral Council (the body
that verifies election results).
Chavez, who tried to seize power through a military coup in
the early 1990s before his election in 1998, also controls the country’s oil
consortium. Although Chavez has never cut off shipments into the U.S., he has
threatened to do so. There could be more than bluster and bravado here: The
Congressional Research Service has reported concerns inside Washington
that Chavez might try to supplant his U.S.
market with China.
Given that Venezuela pumps
an average of 1.5 million barrels of oil per day for the U.S.—or about 11 percent of net oil imports—the
results would be devastating for the U.S. economy.
Far more worrisome is the State Department’s 2006 assessment
that Chavez had “virtually ceased its cooperation in the global war on terror,”
was seeking closer relations with Iran, and was tolerating terrorists
on his territory. In fact, the State Department notes “the FARC often uses the
Colombia-Venezuela border area for cross-border incursions and considers
Venezuelan territory as a safe haven.”
Chavez is not just asking for war with his neighbors—he
seems to be preparing for it. For example, he has acquired high-tech Su-30
fighter jets from Russia and
large transport planes from Spain.
He recently purchased 100,000 combat assault rifles from Russia and wants to
buy 5,000 Russian-made Dragunov sniper rifles, which “have become one of the
most lethal and effective weapons against American troops and their allies in
Iraq,” according to a recent report by The
International Herald Tribune.
“Sales like this, and other sales of military equipment and
arms to Venezuela, don’t
seem consistent with Venezuela’s
needs,” deputy assistant secretary of state David Kramer told the Tribune. “It
does raise questions about their ultimate use.”
If Chavez really wants war—and he may in order to divert
attention from his disastrous economic policies—it won’t be a fair fight. Colombia’s highly professionalized, U.S-trained
military is bigger and much stronger than Venezuela’s. The Washington Post provides the order of battle here.
small, albeit increasingly well-armed, military, the 210,000-strong Colombian
military is war-ready, having fought the FARC since Uribe’s election in 2002. As
Defense Secretary Robert Gates puts it, “The Colombians can take care of
Yet Chavez may get his death wish. Like the Argentine junta
that invaded the Falklands a quarter-century ago, his bully regime would end up
losing the war—and its grip on power.