It seems we will not be invaded this weekend after all. Just over a week after Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, sent 15,000 troops to the border with Colombia and told his army to “prepare for war”, the incendiary leader has now denied that the moves were meant as a threat to Colombia and dismissed such accusations as “cynical”.
Not that Colombians were too worried about their fickle neighbour. There is a sense of déjà-vu here. Colombians recall Chávez ordering his tank battalions to the border earlier this year in response to their country’s bombing of a rebel camp in Ecuador. The reaction of most Colombians to Chávez this week has been: “Here goes that buffoon spouting off again …” And while Chávez was beating his war drums, there were no breaking news flashes or alarmist headlines in Colombia.
In fact, the big news in Colombia this week has been the killing of nine soldiers following a surprise rebel attack on an army base. Indeed it is the threat of these FARC attacks, rather than Chávez’s antics, that keeps Colombians up at night.
Spain’s El Pais newspaper concluded that Chávez had “crossed the line” with his latest bombast. Venezuela’s local press played down the war threats, while Venezuelan opposition newspaper editor, Teodoro Petkoff, called it “another hysterical oratory”. Other local critics suggested Chávez was losing his mind. For much of Venezuela’s opposition, Chávez’s latest outburst is seen as a smokescreen to distract Venezuelans from the country’s domestic woes, including spiralling inflation, growing crime and power cuts, ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.
Officially Colombia responded with a measured statement, refusing to be drawn into a tit-for-tat public row and a high-stakes game of brinkmanship. “Colombia would never build a Berlin Wall along the border,” said Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe. But the Colombian government did take its grievances to the international community and filed a letter of complaint with the Organization of American States and the UN Security Council.
Tensions between Bogotá and Caracas have been simmering for some time now. In practice, it is a Cold War scenario being played out in Latin America, fuelled by engrained mistrust between two ideologically opposed leaders. Bogotá is convinced Venezuela harbours FARC rebels and provides drug smugglers a safe haven along their shared 2,100km porous border. Chávez denies this. Tensions flared up again in August, when Chávez froze diplomatic and trade relations following news of Colombia’s military deal with Washington, which permits the US military access to seven Colombian bases. The deal prompted Chávez to call Colombia’s defence minister “a mental retard”. Bogotá did not retaliate.
Chávez believes this military deal threatens stability in the region and puts Venezuela at risk from a possible invasion by US troops. Bogotá insists the military agreement exists just to combat drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas.
A series of recent incidents have also ratcheted up tensions – Venezuela’s arrest of two Colombian “spies”, and the murder of eight Colombians in Venezuela. But despite the escalation, military conflict remains highly unlikely.
The two leaders are only too well aware of the high political and economic costs a war would bring. Most Venezuelans and Colombians, particularly those living in border towns, oppose the idea of a war between what many view as “brethren nations”. Both countries rely heavily on each other for bilateral trade, estimated last year to be worth around $7bn. Venezuelans eat Colombian eggs and drink Colombian milk for breakfast. They wear Colombian-made jeans and drive around in cars imported from Colombia. How Colombian-Venezuelan relations now develop could well depend on Brazil. Following Chávez’s warwongery, the Brazilian senate decided to postpone a key vote on whether Venezuela can become a member of Mercosur, the region’s influential trading bloc. Just hours later, Chávez publicly clarified his threat of war. It appears Chávez can be swayed by Brazil.
The Brazilian jungle city of Manaus will be the next setting for this Andean saga, where Amazon nations are set to meet later this month. Brazil’s President Lula, possibly with the help of mediation from Spain, hopes to get Uribe and Chávez to sit down to private talks in Manaus. Lula may even push for a photo opportunity handshake, or even a traditional bear hug, between the two leaders. But achieving that will be difficult, even for Lula’s proven statesmanship. But at least today we are not at war.