War in South America?

3 March 2008

War in South America?

 By Gwynne Dyer

Something strange happens to the roads in eastern Colombia. As you near the Venezuelan border, you suddenly come across long, dead-straight stretches that are about eight lanes wide. They are, of course, emergency air-strips for the Colombian air force to use in the event of a war with Venezuela, and they date back to a period long before the current crisis between the two countries. But they are still there, and the topic is on the table again.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s threats of war with Colombia, because he often talks like that. Speaking on his weekly television show, Chavez denounced last weekend’s

Colombian military incursion into Ecuador. “This could be the start of a war in South America,” he warned, addressing Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. “If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I’ll send some Sukhois” (Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela).

Then, intoxicated by his own rhetoric, Chavez upped the ante: “Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me, immediately — tank battalions. Deploy the air force. We don’t want war, but we aren’t going to permit the Empire (his term for the United States)… to divide and weaken us.” All very exciting stuff, but can he be serious? There hasn’t been a war between South American countries in over eighty years.

The trigger for this crisis was a Colombian raid early Saturday that killed Raul Reyes, the second-in-command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and sixteen of his companions. It was an important success in Alvaro Uribe’s long war against the Marxist guerilla army, but there was one little problem: it all happened on the far side of Colombia’s border with Ecuador.

Colombia initially apologised, explaining that its troops had come under fire from the FARC band, but it later became clear that Reyes and his men had been betrayed by a spy and killed in their sleep. The border violation was deliberate and premeditated. Two friendly governments might still have smoothed the matter over — after all, if Ecuador was policing its border properly there should not have been any FARC troops on its territory, and besides no Ecuadorians were hurt in the operation — but these are not friendly governments.

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, like Venezuela’s Chavez, is one of the “new left” leaders of South America, whereas Alvaro Uribe is a conservative leader with close US ties. Both Correa, whose country borders Colombia on the south, and Chavez, whose country borders it on the east, essentially see FARC as a legitimate contender for power in Colombia. Chavez even eulogised Raul Reyes as a “good revolutionary” and condemned his “cowardly murder” by the Colombian army.

Uribe (whose father was killed by FARC in a bungled kidnap attempt) has gradually been winning his war against the guerilla organisation: numbers of commanders have been killed or captured, and there is now a steady flow of defectors. Nothing could be better for Colombia than an end to this crippling five-decade insurgency whose leaders still spout the antique Marxist rhetoric of the 1960s. But both Chavez and Correa see FARC as a friendly force.

The Colombians have long suspected that Chavez allows FARC units to rest and re-train on Venezuelan soil. Correa has only been in power for little over a year, but the Colombian army claims to have found a letter from Reyes to the FARC high command in the dead man’s hard drive in which he recounts his discussions with the Ecuadorian security minister about establishing a permanent link with Correa’s government.

So the Colombian government suspects both its neighbours of aiding and abetting FARC, and it may well be right. Venezuela and Ecuador fear that the recent Colombian incursion into the latter’s territory to kill FARC fighters may be only the first of many, and they also worry that the United States is encouraging such attacks as a way to destabilise these two leftist governments. They, too, may be right.

Given these concerns and calculations, the apparent over-reaction of Chavez and Correa — Ecuador has also dispatched troops to the Colombian border, and both countries have expelled their Colombian ambassadors — may be quite rational. They may be trying to overstretch the Colombian army and give it a two-front problem, in order to protect their FARC friends and deter any further cross-border operations by the Colombians.

But they’d never actually go to war, would they? It still seems very unlikely, in particular because the far more experienced Colombian army would dismantle any forces the Ecuadorians sent against it in a matter of days. Venezuela and Colombia are more evenly matched, and for that very reason it would not be in either government’s interest to have a war: neither side would win.

So that’s settled, then. Except that I keep remembering those emergency airstrips on the roads. Even long before Uribe and Chavez came to power, somebody thought that a war between Colombia and Venezuela was likely enough that they spent all that money on preparing for it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Colombia…governments”; and “The Colombians …government”)