ON July 22, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia accused Venezuela of allowing left-wing Colombian rebels to have bases on the Venezuelan side of the 2 000km border between the two countries.
Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, replied immediately by giving all Colombian diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, moving troops to the border, and warning that the US and Colombia are planning to invade Venezuela.
Both men are being thoroughly disingenuous. Venezuela at least turns a blind eye to the dozens of camps that FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) maintains in western Venezuela near the Colombian border, if it does not actively supply and support them. But why did Uribe wait until the last month of his eight years in office to bring this up?
Chavez’s behaviour is equally perverse. He detects an impending attack and puts the Venezuelan armed forces on “maximum alert” at least once a year — last year he even threatened to invade Honduras to reverse an alleged coup there — but normally it’s just bluster that blows away after a few days. This time, he warns that a war with Colombia would bring “a hundred years of tears,” but he really seems willing to risk it.
Uribe’s motive is fairly transparent. His successor, Juan Manuel Santos, elected in May, is also a conservative politician, but he is widely seen as much more open than Uribe to reconciliation with Venezuela. As Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva put it, “(Santos) has given signals that he wants to build peace. Everything was going well until Uribe made this denunciation.”
Very well, but then why did Chavez fall for it? He is surrounded by yes men, but surely there must be somebody left in his entourage who would point out to him that Uribe’s last-minute accusations against Venezuela are spoiling tactics intended to undermine Santos’s forthcoming peace initiative. So why didn’t Chavez just maintain a dignified silence and wait until August 7, when Uribe leaves power and Santos takes over?
Partly because Chavez is constitutionally incapable of maintaining a dignified silence, but also because he is more vulnerable politically at home than ever before. Venezuela is in a mess, and Chavez needs a foreign enemy fast to draw the public’s attention elsewhere.
It’s not all Chavez’s fault. This year has brought Venezuela its worst drought in a hundred years and the huge dam that supplies 73% of its electricity has the lowest water level ever, so rolling power cuts black out large parts of the country daily.
The devaluation of the Venezuelan currency last January was ultimately his fault, on the other hand, and that is making even his loyal supporters among the poor really ratty. The Venezuelan army is arresting shopkeepers every day for putting up their prices, but what else are they to do when imported goods cost twice as much in bolivars as they did last year?
That’s why Chavez needs lots of distractions for the public, or maybe one big one that lasts a lot longer than his usual games. In mid-July Venezuelans were encouraged to follow the action on TV in real time as they dug up the great hero of South American independence, Simon Bolivar, in order to test Chavez’s theory that the Liberator had been poisoned 179 years ago, but that sort of thing gets old very fast.
So when Uribe made his accusation about Venezuelan support for FARC, Chavez promptly and deliberately misinterpreted it as a Colombian threat to invade Venezuela and overthrow him (allegedly with US support). The threat of war can keep people in line for years, as the Cold War amply demonstrated. It will serve Chavez’s purposes admirably, so long as it doesn’t slide into a real war.
But it might, because the Colombian-Venezuelan frontier is mostly unmarked, and there are armed bands of guerrillas crossing it all the time. The Venezuelan armed forces may also be over-confident and eager to try out their new toys (Chavez has bought them US$2 billion worth of Russian arms). But if it came to a real war, Venezuela would lose.
Drive east along a number of major roads in eastern Colombia, and an hour or two before you reach the Venezuelan border the highway suddenly gets ridiculously wide for a kilometre or so. These are emergency airstrips for refuelling and rearming combat aircraft, built many years ago in anticipation of a possible war with Venezuela. There are no comparable preparations on the Venezuelan side.
The Colombian army has been in combat almost continuously against well-armed local insurgents for the past half-century. It is also three times as big as the Venezuelan army, which has no combat experience whatever. And the oilfields around Maracaibo that provide most of Venezuela’s income are very close to the border, whereas all of Colombia’s major cities are far to the west of it.
If I were a Venezuelan general, I would be urging Chavez to do nothing that risks provoking a war with Colombia.
Maybe Venezuelan generals really are saying that to him. But he doesn’t appear to be listening.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.