It has been business as usual today at Venezuela’s border crossings with Colombia.
It is not hard to imagine the Colombian military’s calculation, if indeed there was any.
Their intelligence had located top FARC leader “RaÃºl Reyes” about a mile inside Ecuador’s national territory. “Should we clear this with Ecuador before we act?” someone may or may not have asked.
Had there been a response, it would have probably run along the lines of, “No, we can’t trust the Ecuadorians not to alert the FARC. It’s better to strike now and deal with the consequences later. What is Ecuador going to do, send us an angry diplomatic note? We can live with that if it means killing ‘RaÃºl Reyes.’”
The response, of course, has gone well beyond a diplomatic note.
- The governments of both Venezuela and Ecuador have sent troops to their borders with Colombia and recalled their ambassadors (or in the case of Venezuela, they’ve closed their embassy in BogotÃ¡).
- Yesterday ChÃ¡vez, after observing a minute of silence in Reyes’ honor, made clear that if Colombia carried out a similar raid on Venezuelan soil it would mean “war.”
- Colombia, for its part, released guerrilla communications captured at the site of Reyes’s killing indicating that the FARC had been in contact with high Ecuadorian government officials. This afternoon, Colombian Police Chief Gen. Ã“scar Naranjo released further documents hinting that the FARC received, or was to receive, $300 million from Venezuela.
Events continue to unfold. The question people have been asking us all day runs along the lines of, as one reporter put it hyperbolically, “is World War III is about to start in the Andes?”
No, war is not imminent. What is happening right now is saber-rattling. Venezuela and Ecuador are determined to increase the consequences for Colombia of its incursion into Ecuador’s territory. Those consequences have already gone well beyond what Colombia probably expected. But they are highly unlikely to include inter-state armed conflict.
Inter-state wars in Latin America are exceedingly rare. This crisis is not likely to be an exception; conflict can easily be averted.
- Trade ties between Colombia and Venezuela are very close, and neither leader wants to jeopardize them. Venezuela in particular has begun to rely increasingly on food imports from Colombia, while a breakdown in trade would mean tens of thousands of lost jobs on both sides of the border.
- Neither country’s military is enthusiastic about a cross-border war. Being ordered to engage in combat with Colombia would sorely test the “Bolivarian” commitment of Venezuelan officers who began their careers well before ChÃ¡vez was first elected. Colombia’s armed forces, meanwhile, would no doubt prefer to continue concentrating on fighting guerrillas at home, rather than opening up a new external battle front.
- Neither country’s population appears to be consumed by “war fever.” Colombians may be deeply angry with ChÃ¡vez, but most would rather not see Colombians die fighting Venezuela. While the escalating war of words may appeal to the Chavista base in Venezuela, most Venezuelans – including even many ardent Chavistas – are no doubt unenthusiastic about either war with Colombia or allying with a militarily declining, chronically abusive force like the FARC.
While it is unlikely, though, the possibility of armed conflict cannot be dismissed.
- An increased military presence in border zones means a greater likelihood that small incidents – shots fired, small skirmishes, even just aggressive behavior – can escalate out of control. (A DMZ exists between the two Koreas largely to avoid such incidents.) Right now, especially with so many diplomats expelled, mechanisms are not in place to quickly resolve any misunderstandings.
- By setting up Venezuelan border units as a “tripwire” against cross-border incursions to fight the FARC – even in hot pursuit – ChÃ¡vez is implicitly offering the guerrillas a safe haven in Venezuelan territory. (Unless, as is unlikely, the military units posted to the border zones ask the FARC to leave Venezuela.)
If this is so, its would be the first evidence of military (not just political) support to the FARC coming from a direct presidential order (not just the result of some local arrangement). Harboring an insurgency seeking to overthrow a neighbor’s government is certainly enough to guarantee, at minimum, a prolonged “cold war” between the two countries. And Gen. Naranjo’s allegations about the $300 million donation could cause this “cold war” to heat up, as advocates of inter-state war seek to make them a casus belli.
It is urgent that these allegations be explained, debunked or otherwise cleared up as soon as possible.
The U.S. State Department responded correctly today, calling for a diplomatic solution involving the Organization of American States. We understand that a bipartisan group of U.S. members of Congress is sending a letter to the OAS asking for their rapid involvement in defusing the crisis. It is very positive that the Bush administration has chosen not to throw gasoline on the fire by aggressively taking Colombia’s side. The call for a multilateral diplomatic response is very appropriate.
Because of the U.S. “baggage” in the region, however, this diplomatic response will require energetic backing from other governments in the region, especially those of larger countries like Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Let’s hope the OAS is up to the task of defusing a potential military confrontation. This is, after all, one of the main tasks for which the OAS was founded.