Thursday, January 17, 2008

Is Chavez seeking war with Colombia?

After Wednesday's new bitter exchanges with Colombia one is allowed to start thinking seriously how far will Chavez go in his stupid and totally unnecessary fight with Colombia. But before I go into that and people think I am an alarmist let me start to explain why there will not be a war.

No matter what Chavez in his delirium thinks he can get away with, the geopolitical reality of the relationship between Venezuela and Colombia weighs very heavily against Chavez and Venezuela. Let's list a few items without any particular order of importance.

  • As I have said often enough we are not seeing a Venezuelan foreign policy, we are seeing a Chavez foreign policy. The Venezuela public has long ceased to be consulted on what is good for Venezuela. Whatever is decided comes directly from behind closed door meetings between Chavez, a few advisers and Cubans. If Chavez really decides to take Venezuela in uncharted waters, a country who has not been at war with anyone since its independence, there is no predicting what the people's reaction will be, no matter what are the pious declaration of the armed forces or even the newly constituted militia.

  • The Venezuelan armed forces are in a very sorry state, a very demoralized one at that. Politics has penetrated in the barracks and the army has been used to distribute chicken and other staples to foster Chavez political fortunes rather than training. Most generals are fat, if not obese, in particular those who show the most devotion to Chavez. There are enough people in the Venezuelan army who know that today Venezuela is unable to sustain a serious war. In front of them would be a much more technical army, a trained one in jungle warfare, an army that more than likely hates the FARC and we can infer will equally hate anyone who supports the FARC. We can seriously doubt that the Venezuelan army will let Chavez drag them into a war that they think they will lose.

  • There are geographical factors that also weigh heavily against Venezuela. Zulia, a critical oil area is close to Venezuela and could be very easily neutralized in a few hours, crippling irremediably the means of Venezuela to finance a long protracted war. The main areas of population and military camps are actually close to Caracas, far from the Colombian borders. However the Colombian border is heavyly settled in the departments of Norte de Santander, Santander and Boyaca, offering a very convenient base, a great fall back for a Colombian army attacking the Tachira area. And Colombia industrial might is rather decentralized into 4 areas, 2 of them all but out of reach from Venezuelan airplanes.

  • If Venezuela could count on the FARC to wage some internal war, it is doubtful that they would be able to cripple the decentralized industrial fabric of Colombia. In Venezuela by just bombing the A.R.C. you eliminate 30% of the military response capacity at the very least. Besides there is a huge Colombian population in Venezuela who voted heavily, 1 to 5, in favor of Uribe during the 2006 election. The huge Colombian population in Venezuela, even if naturalized, cannot be counted upon to offer much resistance to advancing Colombian armies.

  • Only an offensive war by Venezuela could meet a chance of success. And Colombian terrain is much more difficult than Venezuela. And Colombia is much bigger than Venezuela.

  • Colombian public opinion would be convinced that they are fighting a just war, Venezuelan public opinion will have no clue why they are in this mess even if they were to support the war. That can only favor Colombia who in addition has several million more folks than Venezuela.

  • Finally the trade balance is extraordinarily favorable to Colombia and comes from the huge dependence of feed stuff that we import from Colombia. Any durable closing of the Colombian border and its trade will increase dramatically the scarcity of food items already palpable in Venezuela grocery stores. A state of war with the easy wreak up of Puerto Cabello by a daring Colombian raid could create great problems for the Venezuelan populace. We could starve pretty soon. Armies run on their stomach, you know.
Thus, considering that many people know how these parameters will affect any possible conflict, we can wonder if they will let Chavez push them over to the brink. I do not think so and in fact this could speed the violent ouster of Chavez by chavistas themselves who do not want to risk their newly acquired riches just because of the naked ambition of Chavez.

So, why Chavez, who surely is aware in part of what I write above, is gambling so dangerously against Colombia? Wednesday he went as far as accusing Colombia to plot his assassination without offering any proof (a well rehearsed line against the US even though we are still to see the first real concrete evidence of that). The Colombian government was prompt in issuing a very strong communique where basically they warn Chavez to butt off Colombian internal affairs, to show some respect as they show to him. In fact Colombia came dangerously close to qualify Chavez of terrorist himself by accepting all the terrorist practices of the FARC that he refuses to acknowledge.

What is more worrying, or should at least be more worrying for Chavez is that he is not finding support elsewhere except of Nicaragua and Cuba, both heavily dependent on Venezuela money, both with almost no risk from Colombia were a conflict to explode. Other leaders such as Lula are in no hurry to follow Chavez and are trying to stop him before he does the irreparable. Even Correa of Ecuador and Morales of Bolivia have been either silent of ambiguous. Elsewhere, the Washington Post printed an unambiguous condemnatory editorial where words were not minced:

"Venezuela's Hugo Chávez endorses Colombian groups known for abductions, drug trafficking and mass murder."

"In short, Mr. Chávez was endorsing groups dedicated to violence and other criminal behavior in a neighboring Latin American democracy, and associating his agenda with theirs"

"The answer to this logic was provided by the press office of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who has been waging what is, in fact, a heroic battle against the brutal gangs that for decades have plagued his country."

""The violent groups of Colombia are terrorists because they kidnap, place bombs indiscriminately, recruit and murder children, murder pregnant women, murder the elderly and use antipersonnel mines that leave in their wake thousands of innocent victims." All these assertions have been well documented by Western human rights groups that are otherwise hostile to Mr. Uribe's government."

"Latin American leaders who until now have seen in Mr. Chávez a crude populist who buys his friends with petrodollars are faced with something new: a head of state who has openly endorsed an organization of kidnappers and drug traffickers in a neighboring, democratic country"

France and Germany, did not show any support either. There was even a great Liberation editorial which can be compared with the vile propagandist and inaccurate article from the Le Monde Diplomatique (note, NOT Le Monde who is a serous journal and quite anti Chavez), who like Ortega and Castro lives of the largess of Chavez. The manipulative nature of the Diplo work, obviously written in a hurry, shows clearly why this paper has lost any relevance among the cognoscenti of the world, having become what in Venezuela we call "un pasquín".

In brief, it is turning out to be a major foreign policy blunder for Chavez which will cost him more, much more than his failed UN speech. So, why did Chavez took such a demential risk?

The reasons are very simple, he needs desperately to distract Venezuelan attention over his now catastrophic mismanagement of the country.

  • Food staples keep missing and new ones threaten to be added to the list of vanishing products, in particular there is now a concern with common medicines.

  • The subsidy over the price of gas is becoming budgetarily unmanageable. Yet any gas increase is a political time bomb, aggravated by chavismo irresponsible energetic policies.

  • The crime wave is now so out of bound that it will take years to solve it. Even more so that the economic reasons that underlie it are not addressed, that is, real jobs are not created.

  • There is no hope for the production economy to grow outside of the state spreading money around and promoting an obscene import economy. A recent study show that private investment in Venezuela keeps falling and is even now below the investment received by a small country like Guatemala.

  • Poverty, education and other social index seem to fall again. There is a big Dengue epidemic. Mal de Chagas has made a dramatic reappearance in Chacao of all places. More and more Barrio Adentro modules are now closed for lack of staff and/or resources. The promised hospital renovation is nowhere to be seen.

  • Inflation has been two years in a row almost the double of the governmental target. The real inflation is about 30% above the official numbers. This year 22.5% official inflation has eaten deeply into the income of the lower sectors who have seen any gain made early in the year not only wiped out but leaving them worse off than what they were before those huge minimal wage increase of last May.

  • The ministerial changes early this month have failed completely to reassure the country and generate even a tiny momentary honey moon. Nobody cared in fact. Nobody thinks that the reshuffled group will be able to do anything to improve the situation.

  • Corruption is now the constant talk in the street, in addition to personal insecurity and where to find milk.

  • And most important of all, the invincibility aura of Chavez seems to have been irremediably broken on December 2. We can even sense with the changing tone in public protests. With yet another electoral year ahead Chavez is suddenly faced with the possibility of a major regional defeat next November that could jeopardize is hold on office.

And to this we could add another reason: the ill health of Fidel in Cuba, the lack of certainty that Raul will be as supportive as Fidel was, the weakened state of the FARC, are all powerful reasons to roll the dice and gamble the future of Chavez career once and for all. When people are in a hurry, and ill advised, that is when their worse mistakes happen.

Del apuro lo que queda es el cansancio.
(From haste, exhaustion- ?-)

PS: added later. As luck has it, Weil gives us a 4th cartoon in a row on the current situation, and a cartoon that fits like a glove the long post above. Translation of what Lucifer is telling Chavez: "it is a sure thing, 1) you are financing your true army, 2) they free the hostages, you get the peace Nobel and... 3) you wreck your country's economy."

-The end-

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