Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has long been a de facto ally of the leftist Colombian FARC guerillas, and with the news that Colombia killed FARC’s no. 2 man Raul Reyes in cross-border raids on FARC encampments in Ecuador this weekend, it’s not surprising that Chavez’s talk has moved from advocacy to threats. Not surprising, but certainly troubling.
“Mr. Defense Minister, move me 10 battalions to the frontier with Colombia immediately, tank battalions. The air force should mobilize,” Chavez said, adding he will bolster his military’s presence along the 1,400-mile (2,200-km) border.
“May God spare us a war. But we are not going to allow them violate our sovereign territory,” the ex-paratrooper added on his weekly TV show.
“Mr. Defense Minister, move me 10 battalions[.]” What kind of elected leader talks like this? Even Chavez’s hero Fidel, for all his faults, had a certain gravitas in the midst of bluster. Not so with Chavez, whose dangerous buffoonery continues as follows:
“This is something very serious. This could be the start of a war in South America,” Chavez said. He warned Colombian President Alvaro Uribe: “If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I’ll send some Sukhois”-Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela.
He called Uribe “a criminal” accusing him of being a “lapdog” of Washington saying “Dracula’s fangs (are) are covered in blood.”
The slaying of Reyes and 16 other guerrillas, Chavez said, “wasn’t any combat. It was a cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated.”
“We pay tribute to a true revolutionary, who was Raul Reyes,” Chavez said, recalling that he had met rebel in Brazil in 1995 and calling him a “good revolutionary.”
“The Colombian government has become the Israel of Latin America,” an agitated Chavez said, mentioning another country that he has criticized for its military strikes. “We aren’t going to permit Colombia to become the Israel of these lands. … Uribe, we aren’t going to permit you.”
“Someday Colombia will be freed from the hand of the (U.S.) empire,” Chavez said. “We have to liberate Colombia,” he added, saying Colombia’s people will eventually do away with its government.
The backdrop for all this saber-rattling is the ongoing economic turmoil in Venezuela, which has seen store shelves stripped bare despite a global oil boom that ought to leave Venezuela flush with cash. While Chavez remains more popular than he should be, the economic crunch has caused setbacks for his so-called “Bolivarian revolution,” the most prominent of which was the rejection of constitutional changes that would’ve allowed Chavez to run for president repeatedly. (He is currently term limited.)
Given the situation, the threats to use force against Colombia resemble a classic case of diversionary use of force in a democracy.* Many foreign policy scholars have asserted that elected leaders may turn to using military force during periods of low popularity. If successful, the leaders may be rewarded with higher approval ratings (e.g. President George H.W. Bush after the Gulf War), a change in the public’s focus away from negative topics (e.g. President Clinton’s Sudan bombings during the Monica Lewinsky scandal), and increased political capital to use domestically (e.g. President George W. Bush during his first term). If unsuccessful, the leader is likely to lose the next election.
In Chavez’s case, bellicose rhetoric may be all for show, but with the end purpose of heightening nationalist sentiments. By talking about war but not actually fighting, he may benefit from a “rally round the flag” effect in the population, increasing the public’s enthusiasm for his socialist agenda. The real danger here is that Colombia and Ecuador could also engage in military threats for the sake of domestic benefits, with the end result being that one or more of the parties to the dispute might fail to take Churchill’s advice that jaw-jaw is preferable to war-war.
* Though Chavez behaves like a dictator, Venezuela isn’t a dictatorship. Yet.
Update: The Colombian side is doing its share of upping the rhetorical ante:
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said the International Criminal Court should try Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for “genocide” for allegedly financing FARC, listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. He cited documents in laptops Colombia says were recovered at the jungle camp that apparently refer to a $300 million Venezuelan payment.
At a U.N. disarmament meeting in Geneva, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos claimed the FARC were trying to acquire radioactive material that could be used to make “dirty bombs.”
Without providing details, he said the evidence was found two computers found with Reyes. Colombian officials said Monday that investigators found documents suggesting the rebels had bought and sold uranium.
These charges come close to a casus belli, and Colombia ought to come forward with all of the information it has and allow independent observers to verify the accuracy before taking any action. While I wouldn’t put aiding the FARC past Chavez, the insinuation here is that Chavez has indirectly aided the FARC in its pursuit of a dirty bomb, and it seems just as over-the-top as Chavez’s statements.