Mar 24
Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, in 2008, telling a FARC commander, “We are with you. Be strong.”

In an unusual moment last week, the four-star general who heads the U.S. Southern Command had to clarify his comments after questioning from members of Congress.

On March 11, Gen. Douglas Fraser, asked by Sen. John McCain about linkages between the Venezuelan government and Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, told the Senate Armed Services Committee:

We have continued to watch very closely for any connections between illicit and terrorist organization activity within the region. We have not seen any connections, specifically, that I can verify that there has been a direct government-to-terrorist connection. We are concerned about it, I’m skeptical, I continue to watch for it. …

There has been some old evidence, but I don’t see that evidence, I can’t tell you specifically whether that continues or not.

A week later (March 18), under similar questioning in the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Fraser said something different:

We do see a long-term relationship that exists between the government of Venezuela and the FARC. That has been evidenced, if you go back and look at the computer records that came out of the Rafael (sic.) Reyes— capture of that computer. That continues on. There is safe haven, there is financial, logistic support, there’s safe haven for the FARC provided. And all the evidence I have says that continues— the evidence I have doesn’t say that it— that I can explicitly say it’s continuing, but I can’t say it’s explicitly not continuing. So based on the evidence to date, I would say that support still continues.

The following day, Southern Command posted a clarification to its blog.

Assistant Secretary Valenzuela and I spoke this morning on the topic of linkages between the government of Venezuela and the FARC. There is zero daylight between our two positions and we are in complete agreement:

There is indeed clear and documented historical and ongoing evidence of the linkages between the Government of Venezuela and the FARC.

This recalls the February “Annual Threat Assessment” testimony [PDF] of Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.

[Chávez] has restricted Colombian imports, warned of a potential military conflict, and continued his covert support to the terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

So does the Obama administration believe that Hugo Chávez and the government of Venezuela are helping the FARC? Do the words “linkages” and “support” mean military assistance with lethal consequences? It is very important to be precise about this, because of what it implies.

“Hugo Chávez is helping the FARC” means “Hugo Chávez is helping a group that kills Colombians on Colombian soil and seeks to overthrow the Colombian government.” Or, more simply, “Hugo Chávez is helping to kill Colombians and overthrow Colombia’s government.”

Wars — “just” wars — have been fought over less than that. By this interpretation, a Colombian military response on Venezuelan soil would not even be preemptive. It would be retaliatory.

Words matter. Colombia could interpret (misinterpret?) the administration’s message as a “green light,” a signal that Colombia would be justified in taking military action in Venezuelan territory, and that Colombia would have U.S. support in the political and military firestorm that would follow such action.

Precision is important, because it will determine what actions follow. The question the Obama administration needs to answer unambiguously, then, is: does it believe that Venezuela’s government, as a matter of policy (as opposed to the actions of corrupt or rogue elements), is aiding and abetting the FARC today?

In Venezuela’s interest?

The FARC is widely hated in Colombia, condemned internationally for abuses ranging from massacres to narcotrafficking to the use of landmines and child soldiers, and militarily weaker than it was a decade ago, with no chance of taking power by force of arms. Given all that, it’s hard to argue that it would be in Venezuela’s self-interest to aid them. (And Hugo Chávez has not stayed in power for more than 11 years by neglecting his self-interest.)

Why, then, would Venezuela want to help the FARC? Perhaps out of misplaced ideological solidarity. Or perhaps Hugo Chávez still hopes to win a diplomatic victory by helping to broker a peace in Colombia. Perhaps out of a desire to balance out U.S. power by aligning with all declared enemies of the United States (including Iran). Perhaps out of a belief that the FARC would be a first line of defense against a hypothetical U.S. invasion via Colombia. Or perhaps merely out of corruption.

The evidence we know about

But all of this is pure speculation. What follows is the evidence about Venezuela-FARC ties that we have seen through open sources. If there is more — imagery, documents, communications intercepts, corroborated witness testimony — we don’t know about it.

  • Evidence from files recovered from the laptop computer of Raúl Reyes, the FARC Secretariat leader killed in a March 1, 2008 Colombian Army raid into Ecuador. These files point to discussions between FARC representatives and Venezuelan government officials about financial support and the provision of identity cards and weapons. These discussions seem to have increased in 2007, during President Chávez’s short-lived tenure as an authorized facilitator of talks to free civilian hostages in FARC custody. According to an indictment [PDF] issued recently by a Spanish judge, the files also mention FARC cooperation with Spain’s ETA terrorist group via an ETA member working in the Venezuelan government. Colombian officials believe that a Venezuelan referred to in the files as “Angel” is Hugo Chávez.

    These two-year-old computer files remain the strongest evidence indicating a FARC-Venezuela tie, and Venezuela’s insistence that they are a fabrication has not been a convincing response. However, the Reyes files are not sufficient evidence on their own. They contain some inaccuracies and wild fabrications, and often appear to be the words of far-flung guerrilla leaders relying on secondhand information to make inflated claims of their own success. There is no reason at all to doubt that the FARC has asked Venezuelan interlocutors for support. What remains unclear — in part because the Reyes computer claims have not been corroborated — is whether Venezuelan officials truly complied, and if so, whether they had President Chávez’s authorization.

  • Words of support for the FARC from President Chávez and other Venezuelan officials. In the days after Raúl Reyes was killed, President Chávez held a moment of silence in his honor on Venezuelan national television. Participating in a 2008 unilateral hostage release, Venezuela’s interior minister at the time, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, shook a guerrilla’s hand and told him on camera, “We are with you. … Be strong. We are following your cause.” (The U.S. Treasury Department later called Rodríguez Chacín “the Venezuelan government’s main weapons contact” for the FARC.)

    These and other words of support for the FARC have yet to be explained away. But Chávez has, on other occasions, also called on the FARC to release all of its hostages and disband. So statements alone prove nothing beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • The Swedish rockets. Last July, the Colombian government announced that it had recovered from the FARC a number of AT4 shoulder-fired rockets, manufactured by Saab in Sweden. The rockets’ serial numbers corresponded to those Sweden had sold to Venezuela in the 1980s. Chávez later claimed that the rocket launchers had been stolen from a Venezuelan port in 1995, years before he became president.
  • The freedom with which the FARC operates on Venezuela’s side of the border. Colombian officials frequently contend that the FARC maintains encampments in Venezuela, that top FARC leaders spend much time there unmolested, and that Venezuelan officials routinely issue Venezuelan identity cards to FARC members. It is unclear whether this is a result of official Venezuelan policy or local-level corruption. No matter what, though, it is absolutely certain that Venezuela is doing almost nothing to prevent the FARC from using its territory, or punishing officials who assist, or fail to confront, the Colombian guerrillas.

    One could say the same, however, about other illegal Colombian groups that operate in Venezuela, both “new” paramilitaries and narcotrafficking organizations. Paramilitary groups are active in the northern part of the border region (across from Norte de Santander, Cesar and La Guajira). And one of Colombia’s most powerful narcotraffickers, Wilber Varela alias “Jabón,” was killed by a rival gang in the resort town of Mérida, about 100 miles from the Colombian border, in early 2008.

    Is the FARC’s latitude on the Venezuelan side of the border, then, a result of a Venezuelan policy to aid and abet them? Or is it part of a general lack of control of territory, and dysfunction in the security forces, that extends from the greatly increased flow of drugs across Venezuela to the alarming murder rate in Caracas? (Either way, it’s a huge problem for Venezuela.)

The response

If the U.S. and Colombian governments conclude from this (or from classified evidence) that Venezuela continues to aid the FARC, then both countries have an important choice to make. Ambiguity and vague accusations are not a proper response to such a serious charge.

Nor, however, should the response be military. War between Colombia and Venezuela is in nobody’s interest. It could escalate, with significant loss of life. It could destabilize the Andes. And it’s hard to define what a military “victory” in such a scenario would even look like.

Instead, if Washington and Bogotá have evidence that Venezuela is sponsoring killing and attempted state overthrow in Colombia, they must go to the UN Security Council. Article 39 of the UN Charter says the Council “shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken.” Sponsorship of the FARC would certainly qualify as a threat to peace and an act of aggression.

Unless the evidence presented is clear beyond a reasonable doubt, going to the UN — much less the OAS General Assembly — might not succeed. But such a decisive step would be preferable to the ambiguity and — as we saw last week — apparent contradiction in the administration’s message.

Instead of confusing signals that Colombia could misinterpret as a green light for military action, it’s time for more precise language. And if the precise language leads to more direct and decisive diplomatic action, then so be it.

Jan 25

Chileans didn’t elect Sebastián Piñera a week ago Sunday because of their antipathy for Hugo Chávez. Bolivians didn’t re-elect Evo Morales in December out of admiration for Venezuela’s president. Nor will Chávez be an issue on February 7, when a center-left and a rightist candidate face off in Costa Rica.

If you read Jackson Diehl’s column in today’s Washington Post, though, you might come away with the impression that Latin American politics today are “all Chávez, all the time.” That the region is lined up, cold-war style, in monolithically opposed blocs, with ideological tides ever advancing and receding.

Latin America has quietly passed through a tipping point in the ideological conflict that has polarized the region — and paralyzed U.S. diplomacy — for most of the past decade.

This is true in a few politically polarized flashpoint countries, such as post-coup Honduras, increasingly authoritarian Nicaragua, or Colombia, whose war of words with Chávez continues. But in most of Latin America today, elections are quietly and undramatically ratifying presidents or parties in power (Bolivia, probably Costa Rica), or uneventfully bringing oppositions to power (Panama, Mexico’s legislative elections, Chile, probably Brazil later this year). There is no regional cold war.

Instead, it’s hard to discern any pattern in the current set of polls and political outcomes. To the extent that there is one, Latin American voters’ mood is turning against angry, extreme, polarizing leaders of all political stripes. Approval ratings seem to favor moderate pragmatists of the right and left (Martinelli in Panama, Funes in El Salvador, Bachelet in Chile and Lula in Brazil). They are less kind to more combative, partisan leaders (Ortega in Nicaragua, Fernández in Argentina, and even Chávez and Colombia’s Uribe who, while still quite popular, has seen a modest decline in his ratings). An exception is Morales in Bolivia, who won a landslide despite a very combative political style.

Whatever the regional pattern, it seems to have little to do with the personality or influence of Hugo Chávez. In fact, as Diehl points out, Chávez is in trouble at home, facing rising crime rates, power shortages, inflation and a steep currency devaluation. The Venezuelan leader has reacted by hardening still further, nationalizing retail stores, pulling the plug on cable TV networks, and other steps that risk misfiring politically in advance of September legislative elections. As the Venezuelan leader’s direction appears more erratic, the Colombian magazine Semana notes, one ally, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, is visibly distancing himself.

Diehl writes that “Hugo Chávez’s ’socialism for the 21st century’ has been defeated and is on its way to collapse.” That may be. But if true, it would be a huge error to imagine a significant change in U.S. relations with Latin America as a result.

As president of a country of 28 million people, Hugo Chávez’s ability to determine his neighbors’ political destiny was never great. His influence may be less of a concern than what he leaves behind: if the Chávez government should implode under the weight of its mounting economic and social pressures — a possibility that can’t be dismissed within the next five years — it could leave a chaotic competition to fill a power vacuum, making the whole region less secure.

Meanwhile, the popular anger and aspirations that first elected Chávez could easily manifest themselves among voters in another country, sending new leaders of the left to power. And as this happens, still other countries may move rightward.

There are no cold wars in Latin America, no rising or falling tides to be fostered or contained. Just democracies going in different directions, occasionally directions quite distant from the United States. Here in the United States, we have to get used to that, and stop viewing each electoral outcome as a harbinger of triumph or tragedy.

Nov 11

“Let’s prepare for war and help the people prepare themselves for war, because it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

These words, uttered Sunday before a military audience, are the strongest yet from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez about his government’s increasingly tense relationship with Colombia. They follow a series of episodes that has everyone wondering whether the two countries are on the brink of hostilities:

  • July: Media reports revealed that the United States is negotiating to use seven Colombian military bases. An accord was signed October 30. Days later, Colombian media pointed to a U.S. Air Force justification document (PDF) sent to the U.S. Congress earlier in the year. The document bills the presence in Colombia as a means to help the United States confront threats in the region from, among other things, “anti-U.S. governments.”
  • October 2: Eleven Colombian men were kidnapped while playing soccer in Táchira state, on the Venezuelan side of the border; their bodies were later found at several sites in Venezuela. Chávez insists that the murdered men were Colombian paramilitaries.
  • October 24: Bodies of four more men were found on both sides of the border, in Arauca department and Apure state.
  • October 28: Chávez announced that, earlier in the month, Venezuela arrested two Colombian intelligence service (DAS) agents in its territory. Colombia acknowledged that one is a DAS agent but claimed he fell into a trap after being invited to a party on the Venezuelan side of the border.
  • October 30: Venezuela announced the arrest of eight alleged Colombian paramilitaries in its territory.
  • November 2: Gunmen killed two Venezuelan National Guardsmen. Colombia expelled a Venezuelan National Guardsman from its territory. Chávez closed two key border bridges, choking trade.
  • November 4: Chávez announced the deployment of 15,000 troops to the two countries’ common (1,375-mile) border.

Such tensions, and rhetoric like Chávez’s latest broadsides, are very rare in Latin America, where countries almost never fight each other. Is this the runup to all-out war between one of the United States’ closest allies in the hemisphere and one of its main sources of imported oil?

Probably not. Here’s why:

1. Both countries’ postures are defensive. Chávez has phrased even his most bellicose rhetoric in terms of defending Venezuela from presumed U.S. aggression – or perhaps combined U.S.-Colombian aggression. This has also been the pretext for Caracas’ massive arms purchases, mostly from Russia, during the past five years.

The Colombian government has taken a strong defensive step of its own: inviting the U.S. military to share facilities on Colombian soil. While neither the U.S. nor the Colombian government would portray it this way, the base agreement offers Colombia a de facto security guarantee. Like the U.S. presence in South Korea, stationing a small contingent in Colombia offers a sort of “tripwire” against presumed Venezuelan aggression, to use the cold-war analogy.

Both sides are preparing to defend themselves from an attack by the other side – but neither appears to be planning an actual attack. Terms like “pre-emption” are not being used. Though each may be daring the other to make the first move, neither side is playing offense.

2. There is no definition of “victory.” It is hard to imagine a war scenario that either side can define as successful. Would Venezuela take over a few Colombian border towns? Would Colombia drop bombs on the presidential palace in Caracas? If so, then what? The scenarios themselves hardly make sense.

3. Both populations lack “war fever.” In neither Colombia nor Venezuela do we see people taking to the streets to call for war. Neither nation’s newspapers have been publishing editorials or columns demanding blood and sacrifice. There aren’t even any significant Facebook groups calling for a Colombo-Venezuelan conflict. To the contrary: Colombia’s population is exhausted by 45 years of internal conflict that shows no sign of letting up. And among the half of Venezuelans who support Hugo Chávez, it’s hard to imagine more than a minority supporting war with Colombia. (In fact, a poll released yesterday showed 80 percent opposing.) It’s very hard to make war if the people do not want it.

4. Much of this is about domestic politics. Both countries happen to be in a make-or-break election season. Venezuela since 2005 has had an overwhelmingly pro-government, rubber-stamp legislature, a result of the opposition’s oft-regretted decision to boycott the vote. But the next legislative elections are in December 2010 – and could be moved up – and Chávez, whose poll standing is sinking amid shortages and blackouts, has reason to worry about losing this legislative ally and facing a strong legal check on his power. In Colombia, which has a presidential election next May, two-term President Álvaro Uribe, who is popular but taking damage from corruption scandals, is on a quest to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third straight term. Both leaders have a strong incentive to rally support and to distract voters from current problems. Electorally, their hostile rhetoric and actions do the other a favor.

These factors all work against war between Colombia and Venezuela. But there’s still reason to worry.

Let’s return to point 2 for a moment. While there’s no plausible “victory” scenario, there remains the dangerous scenario of a limited military confrontation. One in which a small victory humiliates the other side before the international community moves in to silence the weapons. The possibility of such a brief and limited event – a several-day border battle, for example – is definitely greater, by several degrees, than it was a few months ago. Worse, neither government now has enough diplomatic representation in the other’s capital to keep small understandings from blowing out of proportion.

This outcome is less disastrous than outright war, but still very serious. It could involve significant loss of life. Civil society in both countries is organizing to make clear its rejection of any use of violence; it is essential that it do so with even greater urgency. Other key countries, such as the United States and Brazil, must also be prepared to intercede quickly to ease tensions should they escalate further.

The United States, for its part, should begin right now by making the clearest possible guarantee to the entire region that, despite what some Defense Department documents have indicated, the new military presence in Colombia will never be used to carry out operations in other countries’ territories.

Jan 26

In a post three weeks ago, we discussed Venezuela’s persistent public security problems, including spiking murder and kidnapping rates and evidence of worsening organized crime. We interpreted the Venezuelan state’s inability to stem common crime as a reason to worry about its overall stability, especially its capacity to weather a likely coming economic shock.

Writing in last Thursday’s Washington Post opinion pages, international lawyer Robert Amsterdam offered a much more sinister take on Caracas’s crime wave. Likening Chávez’s Venezuela to Putin’s Russia, Amsterdam imputes that both leaders are keeping common crime levels high on purpose.

Since Putin and Chávez are said to rule with “iron fists,” a menacing question arises: Why have they been unable to stem the tide of crime in their streets? Is it a reflection of incompetence, or is there some tacit benefit to keeping a society imprisoned under a cloak of severe insecurity and moral panic? …

It occurred to me that the monstrous violence on the streets of Caracas and Moscow is perhaps useful to both regimes — and that in their incompetence at delivering public security, they have found a convenience that contributes to their grip on power.

Allowing lawlessness to fester on the streets as a means of enforcing an authoritarian social order? That’s certainly a novel interpretation of what’s happening in Venezuela. Violence in Venezuela could just as easily be the product of a model that, while highly statist and centralized, lacks the rigidity, ruthlessness and all-encompassing nature of the example followed in Cuba, where violent crime rates are negligible

If Mr. Amsterdam offered up even a shred of empirical evidence that Venezuela’s lax law enforcement was a deliberate strategy, and not simply a consequence of poor governance, his highly counterintuitive argument might make some sense. But his column includes no such evidence. It is surprising that the Washington Post would air such an outlandish argument based entirely on speculation.

Mr. Amsterdam is unconvincing. Venezuela’s violent crime problem is real and appears to be worsening. But instead of a devious means of social control, we see it as a result of bad public security policies, and thus a threat – not a support – to the Chávez government’s longevity.