I have been fascinated by the different comments coming from everywhere, be it the insensate and violent ones from Cilia Flores, chair of the Venezuelan Nazional Assembly, or be they from some insensate "come flores" who wallow on technicalities that the OAS procedures were not kosher and that it was the same old story anyway. And it occurred to me that pretty much everyone is missing the forest for the tree. What happened yesterday in Washington was Colombia serving notice to the world that a tragedy is brewing in Venezuela and that they are not willing to shoulder the cost alone.
Let's start by three basics here.
No country knows better what happens in Venezuela than Colombia. Estimates of Colombians living in Venezuela range from a couple of millions to 5 or more. Let's say that we accept a reasonable estimate of 3 million Colombian citizens settled in Venezuela but still with frequent contacts with the folks at home. We can say that this 3 million people are more than enough to bring crisp an reasonable information home about the reality they have to deal with in Venezuela. How else can you explain that the image of Chavez is so negative inside Colombia and that Uribe numbers are inflated in part due to his image as a non Chavez system of governance?
If the situation gets worse in Venezuela which country will suffer the brunt of it? Colombia! Where will go the millions of Colombians that feel there is no future anymore in Venezuela? To Colombia! And when things get really bad and hundred of thousand of Venezuelan refugees start leaving Venezuela where will they go on foot? To Guyana? Rafting to Trinidad or Aruba? To Brazil after a trek through the Guayana highlands? No, they will go to Colombia, the more so that Zulia, Merida and Tachira are on the border with Colombia and that among them they represent the most densely settled area of Venezuela after the Caracas-Valencia axis.
Colombians know very well that the situation is getting worse and worse in Venezuela and that the longer Chavez stays in office the more the risk of an economic collapse. With such an economic collapse that cannot be dealt with properly because the government is absolutely trapped in an ideological cum thuggery spiral there is no outcome but violence, civil unrest and repression. For Colombians it is now a simple question of calendar, with the real danger that for internal reasons Venezuela may decide to sponsor further FARC terrorist camps to cause trouble in Colombia as a distracting measure from Venezuelan home troubles. Or do you believe for a second that Chavez will look benevolently on a prosperous Colombia while his people stand in line at Mercals, even in the house of Bolivar?
Thus Colombia is faced with the prospect of millions of Colombian returning, to which a million or two Venezuelans could be added (a few hundred thousand just through bi-national families). Not only Colombia is not ready to face such an flood of refugees, but they can bring along all sort of 5th column undesirables trained in the FARC camps in everything from terrorist activity to narco-business so as to revive the local one and counter any advances Uribe did against drug traffic and guerilla. For Colombia it is not anymore a matter of if, but a matter of when and what could be done to minimize the onslaught.
Which brings us to the third basic reality for Colombia. Outside of the US of A Colombia is all alone in this. Uribe administration has been complaining for years about the support of Chavez to the FARC and nothing has happened in Latin America. Even meager efforts were silently sabotaged by Brazil diplomacy who among other things created UNASUR to impose the influence of Brazil in the region against the US and even Mexico, as a good way to isolate within South America any potential rival such as Colombia. That UNASUR is failing does not detract an iota to the feeling among Colombians in the know that when shit happens in Venezuela they will be left alone to take care of the collateral damage, and probably pay for it alone too as certainly it will not be the Brazilian companies that got rich at the expense of the break down of the Colombia Venezuela trade that will chip in much for the refugees camp inside Colombia.
Once you understand these realities you can put the pieces together about the events yesterday. For example some ambassadors bemoaned that the Colombian envoy, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, meddled in Venezuelan inner affairs instead of limiting himself to the business at hand. What they missed is that Hoyos was not talking to them, he was talking directly to the Venezuelan people, in near colloquial or emotional terms at times, knowing full well that his speech would be repeated inside Venezuela. The message was: "look at what Chavez is doing! You are going to pay for this if you do not do something about it! Poor you! We feel your pain!" Not as a threat but as a support from Colombia, adding that Colombia was not seeking any sanction, was merely trying to help. Very undiplomatic for the stiff necks of the OAS but that was the objective since Colombia has tested once again how useless the OAS has become under its current secretary Insulza. Colombia harbors no illusion about the OAS or UNASUR and has decided to strike on its own, with the support for the US and soon the one from Europe, Canada and possibly Chile and Peru once this last one goes though its next presidential elections. However as a loud speaker the OAS can still be of some use, as Hoyos showed yesterday.
The fact of the matter is that the Venezuelan inner affairs have ceased to be only Venezuelan affairs and that the FARC camps are only one of the aspects in which Chavez erroneous policies are starting to affect Colombia. Uribe and Santos know that very well and that is why they do not care about the break up of relations. After all, for all practical purposes, relations between Venezuela and Colombia were at a standstill, the Colombian ambassador to Caracas complaining that it had no access to anyone in the government. Her prompt recall, before Hoyos presentation, was a sure sign that Colombia knew that the only reply from Chavez could be the official break up between the two countries, sanctioning the practical one.
The paradox here is that Uribe by playing such a coarse bad guy role is in fact cleaning up the slate for Santos. This one will take office with a situation cleared up with Venezuela. Bad and negative situation for sure, but a clear one for which there is no other way but up. As a bonus point it is Uribe who served official notice to the rest of the Americas that Venezuela was becoming everyone's problem and that if measures could not or would not be taken it was necessary at least to quarantine safely Chavez until he defuses himself, without much trouble if possible. Nobody likes to be served notice, even if the notice is perfectly justified.
I would venture to add that the rather meek reaction of Chavez yesterday, limiting himself to break up with Colombia, and letting his Cilia Flores like take charge of the insults and vulgarities is a witness of Chavez taking the measure of his growing isolation. He had to break up with Colombia because it was the only way he could avoid an international inspection that he knew would leave him very weak. But he did not go to war, let it know that no further action would be taken because he knew that he is alone on that one as Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia are not enough to allow him to do more.
Thus now we are in an official standstill, consular services probably operating at least until Santos takes charge in a couple of weeks. For all practical purposes it does not change anything since as a reader told us in a recent post comment that already Ecuador trade with Colombia had caught up with the current trade with Venezuela. The only thing we know for sure is that trade with Colombia is not going to increase, that Colombians will stop coming to Venezuela except for the FARC sympathizers and that Chavez took a major slap in the face yesterday, even if most do not realize it yet.
And how does this play at home? Certainly it does not help the opposition much. This one is in the difficult position of having to chose between Uribe and Chavez, but with a much weakened Chavez at home, with Pudreval and other corruption and inefficiency scandals, when the 70% + ratings of Uribe are known by all here, the dichotomy is much easier to overcome than a year or two ago. The best thing to do is to ignore the break up and go back ASAP to the diverse Pudrevals of the regime. Only the truly hard core chavista KoolAid drinkers will believe that Chavez is innocent: most Venezuelans know or sense that Chavez is hiding something and thus he will not be able to use the nationalistic card this time. Nor is he trying, by the way, at least up to now, let's grant him that.