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Colombia and Venezuela Dispute

Hugo Chávez has imperial ambitions, fed by petro=dollars [at 130 dollars per barrel in mid 2008]. By 2009 Colombian officials and observers were increasingly concerned about the long-term threat Venezuela poses to their country. Experts inside and outside the government worry that any small incident along the tense border could spark a costly confrontation, given the decrease in communication and increase in tension between the two countries. Most believe the main risk comes from an unintentional incident, although influential GOC advisors claim to be equally worried that President Chavez could start a war to distract Venezuelans from their economic woes.

Still, a broader threat transcends the current crisis -- Venezuela has isolated Colombia, its arms purchases will allow it to defeat Colombia militarily, and Venezuelan trade restrictions will cause significant economic damage. Real or not, the perception of the threat posed by Venezuela has widespread implications for Colombian society. The perception that the USG is not supporting Colombia is becoming an issue in public commentary and private conversation.

On 01 March 2008 FARC leader Raúl Reyes was killed along with 24 others (including four Mexicans and an Ecuadorean). Colombian forces recovered the extensive computer files of Reyes, which would become a trove of information. Captured Reyes computer files show that Chávez may have offered to send up to 300 million dollars to the FARC, coordinated diplomatic moves with them, provided guns and ammunition, as well as sanctuary within Venezuela. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos asserted: "What they (the computer files) show is that the level of cooperation was much more than we had earlier estimated, we knew there was a level of cooperation, but not as intense, not as close and not as effective as we're now seeing." Moreover, administrative shabbiness and corruption last year allowed some 270 tons of cocaine to pass through Venezuela bound for the United States and Europe.

Venezuela and Ecuador broke diplomatic relations with Colombia after Colombian troops raided a FARC rebel camp in Ecuador, killing FARC commander Raul Reyes and at least 20 other people. In reaction to the Colombian strike, Chávez ordered 10 battalions and tanks to the Colombian border. "Mr Defense Minister, move me 10 battalions to the border with Colombia right away, tank battalions," Chavez said on his weekly television show on Sunday. Few of the units made it because of the deplorable condition of Venezuela's military. Uribe coolly ordered no military response, instead he threatened to haul Chávez to the International Criminal Court for aiding terrorism.

President Hugo Chavez persisted in his public criticism of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. In October 2009, he called the United States "the first state sponsor of terrorism" and has repeatedly referred to the United States as a "terrorist nation." Since Colombia and the United States signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement, Venezuela's cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism has been reduced to an absolute minimum. President Chavez continued to strengthen Venezuela's relationship with state sponsor of terrorism Iran. Iran and Venezuela continued weekly Iran Airlines flights connecting Tehran and Damascus with Caracas.

It remained unclear to what extent the Venezuelan government provided support to Colombian groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The FARC and ELN reportedly regularly crossed into Venezuelan territory to rest and regroup as well as to extort protection money and kidnap Venezuelans to finance their operations. Colombia on various occasions has accused the Venezuelan Government of harboring and aiding top FARC leaders in Venezuelan territory.

Some weapons and ammunition from official Venezuelan stocks and facilities have turned up in the hands of these groups. In July 2009, Colombia announced that it had recovered five Swedish AT-4 anti-tank missiles from the FARC that were originally sold to Venezuela. Chavez called the Colombian report "a dirty lie." When Sweden confirmed the 1988 sale of the weapons, Venezuela then claimed the weapons had been stolen by the FARC from a Venezuelan base in 1995. When local journalists showed 1995 news reports that said the rival ELN had carried out the attack, the government claimed the ELN had sold the weapons to their rivals.

Few in Colombia assess that Venezuelan President Chavez plans a full-scale attack on Colombian territory, but officials and commentators alike see a much greater risk that the heightened tension and increased Venezuelan military presence along the border could spark an unintentional armed border conflict. Even though it was clear the GBRV could not move 15,000 troops to the border as announced, the poorly trained and undisciplined state of Venezuelan troops could cause them to open fire without provocation. An analysis in leading newsweekly "Cambio" pointed out that the lack of communication between the two countries -- along with the atmosphere of mutual recrimination and doubt -- could cause such an incident to spiral out of control. The analysis concluded that although war is not imminent, it is much closer now than during any previous bilateral crisis.

These concerns are multiplied by what many here see as Venezuela's unpredictability. This volatility made it particularly difficult to predict the Venezuelan leader's reactions in crises like the current one. A dictator like Chavez calculates risk and reward differently from that of democratic governments like the USG and GOC -- making his moves hard to foresee. Colombian media frequently portray Chavez as mercurial or even clownish, but others believe he is quite rational -- just not predictable.

Casa de Narino insiders worry about a full-on Venezuelan invasion, even though the current conventional wisdom predicts otherwise. Chavez was desperate to distract his people from Venezuela's economic crisis, likening the situation to Argentina's 1982 seizure of the Falklands/Malvinas Islands from the United Kingdom. GBRV had killed the nine Colombians, one Peruvian, and one Venezuelan whose bodies were discovered on 24 October 2009 in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira, an act that proved the Venezuelan regime's ruthlessness in attempting to provoke a war with Colombia.

Virtually all local observers assess Colombia would dominate Venezuela in any armed conflict, as its years of experience and better-trained personnel would outweigh any Venezuelan hardware edge gained from its recent spree of arms purchases. Nevertheless, many worry about the havoc Venezuela could inflict in even a short conflict. Colombian armed forces in the area are far superior to those of the GBRV, but the GBRV could inflict unacceptable physical and political damage in border areas before being defeated rapidly. Similarly, given the relatively short distances involved, a single Venezuelan bomber could easily drop a bomb on a major Colombian city -- an outcome the GOC could not tolerate. Chavez -- "a soldier who has never fought a battle" -- simply does not understand these human costs of combat the way that Colombians do, or else he would not risk it.

First, officials and observers alike worry Chavez's regional diplomacy (fueled in equal measures by oil and ideology) has left the GOC alone in the region and surrounded by unfriendly countries, with few regional powers willing to speak out against Chavez's aggressive rhetoric. The region's current silence only emboldened Chavez to continue to speak and act aggressively -- and to keep generating crises. Although the Brazilian Senate's 11 November 2009 vote to delay Venezuelan entry into Mercosur contributed to Chavez's newly-toned down rhetoric. President Uribe believed this was a deliberate GBRV strategy aimed at spreading Bolivarianism and isolating Colombia as one of the few remaining opponents of the ideology.

Second, GOC officials in particular are worried about Chavez's recent arms acquisitions from Russia, Iran, and other countries outside the hemisphere. The hardware increasingly allowed the GBRV to back up its hostile rhetoric, and the improved weaponry would eventually overwhelm the GOC's current advantages. This is creating political pressure on the GOC to respond in kind. The lower House of Congress held hearings in early December 2009 to determine whether the GOC is adequately prepared to face the Venezuelan threat, while U Party Senator Juan Carlos Velez publicly insisted the GOC needed to purchase upgraded air defense systems to counter the Venezuelan threat. Colombia was also interested in discussing the acquisition of anti-tank systems. This dynamic could spread into a dangerous bilateral arms race, given that neither country finds credible the other side's claims to be focusing on defensive capabilities.

Finally, Colombians worry about short- and medium-term damage to their economy caused by sharply decreased trade with their number-two trade partner. September 2009 exports to Venezuela dropped by 52%, compared with September 2008 numbers. For the first half of October, Colombian exports were down 77% compared to the same period in 2008. Colombian imports from Venezuela are down 56% for the first nine months of 2009. Given the high degree of interdependence in border areas, such as Cucuta, trade restrictions and temporary border closings take a tremendous toll on the border region, and the GBRV has taken other punitive steps that will continue to drive down trade. Paradoxically, many in the GOC and Colombian business community see potential long-term benefits for Colombia in the drop off in bilateral trade, as it will put greater pressure on Colombian exporters to diversify theirmarkets.

The two countries as natural trading partners, and neither can readily replace the other. Nonetheless, it was entirely possible that Chavez could drive bilateral trade down to virtually zero, suggesting continued downward pressure on Colombian economic growth against a backdrop of increasing unemployment and stagnant economic activity. In a letter to President Obama dated October 29, 2009, President Uribe presented this same argument as a reason to push forward on the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement.

Worry about Venezuela abounds in Colombian society. It affects politics, diplomacy, the economy, and, increasingly, military doctrine. Colombian leadership will maintain calm in its immediate dealings with Caracas, but there will be increasing pressure to demonstrate that Colombia is prepared to deal with its volatile neighbor to the east.

On 22 July 2010, Venezuela severed ties with Colombia after Bogota went before the Organization of American States in Washington to present photographs, maps , coordinates and videos it said show 1,500 guerrillas hiding inside Venezuela. Mr. Chavez denied the charge, saying the items did not provide any solid evidence of a guerrilla presence there. On 31 July 2010 Venezuela's president said he had deployed troops to the border with Colombia, as tensions rise between the two South American countries. Chavez said he believed the outgoing government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe could be planning to attack Venezuela.

On 11 August 2010 Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, restored diplomatic relations that were severed by Caracas in a dispute over Venezuela's alleged support of leftist rebels in Colombia. The two leaders made the announcement late Tuesday after talks. They met at a colonial-era estate in Santa Marta, a city on Colombia's Caribbean coast where 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar died.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:27:20 ZULU