Colombia, Venezuela, War and Rhetoric
(International Relations and Security Network 12/2/2008)


"Peon," "liar," "coward" and "mafia boss" are some of the terms Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has used to insult the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe so far this year. Uribe has given little reply, only saying once during a recent trip to Paris that he would not reply to Chavez's insults out of respect for the Venezuelan people.


The verbal barrage began in late November 2007 after Uribe declared that Chavez's participation in a humanitarian hostage release negotiation would be immediately suspended. Chavez had broken protocol and phoned one of Uribe's military leaders against his expressed wishes.


Chavez, apparently humiliated, reacted with a long list of insults and closed the border with Colombia. Until the beginning of this year, it appeared to be the latest chapter in the tremulous relationship between the two politically opposed presidents. But now things are getting more aggressive - so much so that some observers are considering the possibility that a small conflict between the two neighbors might break out in the coming months.


After Venezuela halted cross-border traffic, Chavez followed up with an announcement that his country's national guard troops would soon be on the border to prevent the illegal movement of subsidized goods from Venezuela to Colombia. Now there is talk of light-armor personnel carriers gathering in some places on the border.


Deeper still are worries about Chavez's relationship with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and how that might translate into a firefight between Venezuelan and Colombian troops - one choreographed to appear like a battle that Venezuela won, defending the people from the "oligarchy" in Colombia and its US "imperialists" backers.


But some observers would caution Chavez, saying that his margin for error is a thin one. If he were to provoke a small conflict, it would be in his best interest to keep it short. And victory is a must, some experts say, otherwise, the resulting loss of confidence in his regime could mark the beginning of the end of his revolution.


Economics: The real issue


Bilateral trade between Colombia and Venezuela has grown steadily since 2001. This past year was expected to break records, reaching beyond US$5 billion. Most of this trade, however, was exported from Colombia to Venezuela. Food stuffs, textiles, vehicles and leather goods made up the bulk of the items sold to Venezuela. Relatively little flowed back to Colombia from Venezuela.


Closing the border halted trade between the two countries, hurting the pockets of Colombian businessmen and depriving Venezuelans of food, especially those in bordering states that expected regular shipments of wheat, chicken, milk and other dry goods.


"Chavez is looking to import specifically food stuffs from somewhere else, and the main targets are from countries that he thinks are politically allied to him - Nicaragua, to a certain extent Mercosur countries (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay)," Andy Webb-Vidal, a political consultant in Colombia who spent nearly a decade covering Venezuelan politics, security and business, told ISN Security Watch.


"These arrangements can be done, but they can't be made overnight," Webb-Vidal added, pointing out that Colombia remains the best trading partner for Venezuela.


Chavez's subsidized food programs depend on imported food stuffs from Colombia. As such, when trade is cut off, the people most likely to support Chavez, those who rely on subsidized food, are the hardest hit.


"So by closing the border, Chavez is really shooting himself in the foot, politically speaking," Webb-Vidal said.


Military movement


The last time tensions between Colombia and Venezuela reached a peak was the so-called Granda affair.


Colombian agents had arranged for a FARC operative in Venezuela to be arrested in Caracas in mid-December 2004 and brought to the border where he was handed over to Colombian agents. Reacting to what he considered a breach of Venezuelan sovereignty, Chavez closed the border for a short while, shouted insults and denied that FARC operated in Venezuela before he and Uribe made public amends.


But the current situation is worse, say some experts.


"It is not the typical crisis," Roman Ortiz, director of Security and Post-Conflict Studies with Bogota-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), told ISN Security Watch.


"The pace of change in this crisis is faster than that of public perception in Colombia," Ortiz said, pointing out that while the Colombian public has become concerned about the rise in tensions between the two countries, the reality might indeed be worse.


"I do not want to sound like a war monger," Ortiz said, "but in mid-November [of 2007] no one could have predicted that we would be where we are in mid-January."


While there are no confirmed reports of military hardware movement along the border, Ortiz points out that the Venezuelan National Guard is active in the area and has mobilized lightly armored personnel carriers.


This observation was acknowledged via phone with a retired Venezuelan military officer who confirmed some facts but declined to be interviewed for this story.


"What's also a concern is that the area where conflict could break out, in the Colombian department of Arauca, there is a substantial FARC presence," Nicolas Urrutia, Security and Post-Conflict investigator with FIP told ISN Security Watch.


"In that part of Colombia, the terrain is a mixture of dense jungle and mountainous sections. If Colombian and Venezuelan forces were posted there with the FARC in the middle, it could be problematic," Urrutia said.


Enter FARC


"It's almost the classic military government excuse. As Chavez's problems internally become more and more severe, he needs to find an distraction or pass the blame elsewhere," Webb-Vidal suggested.


"The more the Chavez government falls under pressure internally because of mismanagement, the more he will pass the blame on to outside aggressors," he added.


It is clear that neither Venezuela nor Colombia will make the first move or fire the first bullet. But this is where FARC comes into play.


Chavez received a letter from FARC leader Manuel Marulanda on 9 February. The contents of the letter are not nearly as important as the fact that the leader of an insurgency is communicating with the president of his enemy's neighbor.


FARC is at war with the government of Colombia, yet Chavez continues to communicate with the rebel leader under the auspices of a humanitarian exchange. But it seems mission creep has recently come to light.


Allegations of Venezuelan leaders actively supplying FARC with materials have been ongoing for years. The latest to surface are claims that some Venezuelan elements supply FARC soldiers with ammunition. Whether or not Chavez is complicit in this alleged activity, the perception of his proximity with the FARC is very real in Colombia.


As FARC is active on the Colombia-Venezuela border, the possible orchestration of a firefight between the two countries could be sparked with a muzzle flare from a FARC soldier's rifle. As far a stretch this possible event may be, it is real enough to warrant considerable concern even in Washington.


"One Colombian soldier is worth three Venezuelan soldiers if it comes to that, but in terms of hardware on paper, Venezuela has the upper hand," Webb-Vidal said.


And the Colombians know that. Their strength is man-to-man combat and they could weather well a long battle. It is in Chavez's interests to have a quick strike and as short a conflict as possible, one he desperately needs to present as a defensive move, and one he must present as a win.

The longer the engagement were to last, the bigger the disadvantage for the Venezuelans, especially because Chavez needs to feed the troops.


If any clash were to turn into a disaster for the Venezuelan military, it could mean the end for Chavez. Any perceivable military loss on the Venezuelan side could have devastating effects inside his government.


"The Venezuelans might say, 'Of what use at all is our government if it can't get us food, inflation is through the roof, and it can't even win a skirmish with the Colombians on the border?'," Webb-Vidal said.