“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 ChÃ¡vez 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 TÃ¡chira state, on the Venezuelan side of the border; their bodies were later found at several sites in Venezuela. ChÃ¡vez 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: ChÃ¡vez 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. ChÃ¡vez closed two key border bridges, choking trade.
- November 4: ChÃ¡vez announced the deployment of 15,000 troops to the two countries’ common (1,375-mile) border.
Such tensions, and rhetoric like ChÃ¡vez’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. ChÃ¡vez 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 ChÃ¡vez, 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 ChÃ¡vez, 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 Ãlvaro 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.