The Colombian government’s successful killing of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) number-two Raul Reyes is an important victory in Colombia’s 44-year war with the narco-terrorists. Perhaps more significantly, the Colombian government’s ability to target the FARC will be substantially augmented by the computers captured from Reyes’s base. Advantages aside, however, the killing of Reyes and the contents of his hard drives have sparked a major diplomatic spat that has important regional implications.
The attack took place on March 1 about a mile and a half inside of Ecuadorian territory. Ecuador’s government was perturbed by this violation of their sovereignty, but the Colombian government apologized and the official Ecuadorian government reaction was subdued.
It was Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez who loudly and undiplomatically condemned Colombia’s President Uribe calling him a mafia chief, a criminal, and — the most offensive insult Chavez can level — an oligarch. He also called Colombia the Israel of Latin America (such sentiments are de rigueur for Chavistas). Chavez stated that similar attacks in Venezuela would be an act of war, and ordered ten battalions to the Colombian border. After its initially mild reaction, Ecuador followed suit, mobilizing troops and, in like fashion, expelling Colombian diplomats. But if it was Ecuadorian sovereignty that was violated, why is Chavez taking the lead in bashing Colombia?
There are several possibilities:
First, the hard drives captured from the FARC camp are absolute dynamite. So far the documents reveal that the FARC was negotiating with the Ecuadorian government at a very high level, that the FARC had given Chavez $150,000 while he was imprisoned after his 1992 coup attempt, and received $300 million from Chavez in return. And the revelations have only begun; it is likely that over time more will become lucid. Having declared that the FARC is a legitimate army, Chavez may not be concerned about the elucidation of his connections to the FARC. But his ally, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, having claimed that he was not dealing with the FARC, is now embarrassed. By fomenting a diplomatic crisis, Chavez shifts the heated attention away from his ally.
Second, Chavez is deterring possible Colombian attacks on FARC leaders in Venezuela. It has long been an open secret that the Venezuelan frontier regions were open territory to the FARC. But the level of FARC activity in Venezuela has been increasing and at the same time Chavez has endorsed the FARC more vocally, insisting (contrary to most other countries in the world) that they are not terrorists. In deploying his forces he is sending a message to the Colombians that they must not target FARC in Venezuela.
Third, Chavez is looking for an international crisis to distract the Venezuelans from their domestic crisis. This is the oldest play in the book for dictators the world over. An article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs by the former chief economist for the Venezuelan National Assembly explains that for all of Chavez’s rhetoric about aiding Venezuela’s poor, actual improvements have been minimal. Venezuela’s economy has been booming due to high oil prices, but there has been little trickle down. At the same time many of Chavez’s polices — particularly price controls on staples — have led to the predictable shortages and to popular discontent. From Nasser to Fidel to Sukarno, third world dictators thrive on diplomatic spats and saber rattling.
Fourth: Hugo es loco. There have been many rumors about Hugo’s mental health and some of his recent acts (such as calling for the exhumation of his hero Simon Bolivar’s remains for tests to see if he was assassinated by the oligarchs) are increasingly loopy. It is possible, though not too likely, that Chavez actually wants this fight. Nonetheless, the history books are full of wars that should not have happened. Once an escalation begins, it can be difficult to bring it to an end.
If it comes to shooting, the odds would be on Colombia. The Venezuelan military will probably not show much enthusiasm for this adventure — and might rebel. Hugo’s high-priced weapons platforms take time to integrate, and the more sophisticated the equipment the more training is required. The United States would share satellite and electronic intelligence — just as it has in battling the FARC. In modern warfare the electronic advantage is crucial and for Venezuela will probably be insurmountable. A war would probably result in a catastrophic defeat for Chavez and his fall from power. It would also be an expensive bloody disaster for both Colombia and Venezuela.
Fortunately, it will probably not come to war. The other nations of Latin America are rushing to negotiate a settlement. The United States is wisely staying in the background (open confrontations with Chavez only play to his advantage). But as more intelligence about the FARC emerges from the late Raul Reyes’s hard drive, the nations of Latin America may be forced to make some tough decisions. Ecuador’s President Correa will have to decide if he wants to play Syria to Chavez’s Iran. But more broadly, the nations of Latin America, many of which have suffered from violence linked to the FARC, will have to decide if they can tolerate a state sponsor of terrorism in their midst or if that state should suffer the consequences of supporting terror.
– Aaron Mannes, editor of TheTerrorWonk, researches international security affairs at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, and is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.