Analysis & Opinions - International Herald Tribune

Chávez Rattles His Saber

| March 6, 2008

The world has grown accustomed to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez calling world leaders names. He called George W. Bush the "devil," the former president of Spain a "fascist," and Mexico's president a "puppy of the American empire." Now he has called President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia a "criminal and liar."

This time around, however, the slur was accompanied by the deployment of 10 army battalions along the Venezuela-Colombia border.

These actions followed reports that 17 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had been killed in a raid by the Colombian military into Ecuadoran territory.

Venezuela claims that the deployment of troops along the border is a preventive measure should Colombia attempt a similar action on Venezuelan soil. Venezuela also closed its embassy in Bogotá, which, despite the history of heated rhetoric between the two countries, represents an unprecedented severing of relations.

These developments raise at least four issues.

First, was Colombia wrong to engage in hostilities on Ecuadorean soil?

Colombia infringed on Ecuador's sovereignty, technically a violation of the United Nation's non-intervention principle. However, the border between Ecuador and Colombia is highly porous. Insurgents can freely cross unmonitored and unregulated. Any pursuit of FARC members would almost inevitably trespass borders with neighboring states.

Venezuela's preparation for armed conflict as a result of Colombia chasing rebels across that undefined border is disproportional. A strong diplomatic reaction would have been enough.

Second, why is Venezuela involved at all?

Chávez has made alliances with like-minded states in the region that he has underwritten with oil revenues. He provides aid and subsidized oil to Cuba and Nicaragua, has sent oil rigs to Ecuador and bought more than $5 billion of Argentina's foreign debt. Venezuela's role as a regional patron has created a loyalty among his beneficiaries and has given Chávez a stake in their internal affairs.

The trouble, however, is that this conflagration could hold the seeds for a modern-day Falklands crisis. Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 at least partly in an attempt to divert attention from drastically declining economic conditions and civil unrest. What Argentina did not anticipate was Britain's reaction. Two months and almost 1,000 fatalities later, Argentina surrendered and its government fell.

Venezuela is now suffering from many of the same internal problems that Argentina had then. There are signs that Chávez's social revolution has contributed to increased economic inequality, food shortages and inflation. Even oil production has dropped considerably. Last year, Chávez's constitutional reform was roundly rejected in a referendum.

The concern now is that Chávez is amplifying an external threat to distract Venezuelans from domestic malaise. His saber-rattling, however, runs the risk of escalation. What started out as a domestic prop could easily lead to outright conflict if one side or the other miscalculates.

Third, what are the consequences of escalation? Armed conflict in the Andes would have grave consequences, including the loss of lives and money, a flow of refugees and a further increase in oil prices. It would be a recipe for the deterioration of already precarious living conditions in the Andean region, with reverberations beyond.

What should be done?

Countries with regional clout must work to defuse the situation. Brazil is the perfect candidate for this job. It has good relations both with Uribe's right-of-center administration and Chávez's leftist government, and the regional muscle required to mediate between the two.

So far, the United States has refrained from responding to Chávez's antagonistic rhetoric. But the U.S. should be prepared for a more active approach if events escalate. The region might object to a direct U.S. military intervention, but Washington might consider quietly stepping up the supply of aid, training and equipment to Colombia.

Chávez's recent moves could be another episode of posturing, but the hemisphere cannot rule out the possibility of a conflict in the Andes. Miscalculations have led to war in the region before, and it could happen again.

Gustavo Flores-Macías, a visiting associate at Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, is writing a book on the rise of the Left in Latin America. Sarah E. Kreps is a research fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for International Law and Politics.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Flores-Macías, Gustavo and Sarah E. Kreps.“Chávez Rattles His Saber.” International Herald Tribune, March 6, 2008.

The Authors