Roots of Venezuelan-Colombian Crisis

It’s not easy to tell, despite all the blustering on various sides and even the movement of troops, whether there is really a crisis brewing in South America that could lead eventually to military confrontation. But animosities that have been expressed for some time mainly in nasty words and insults have started to become more serious. And while most of the reasons have to do with problems exacerbated by various leaders in the region, it is important to note that long-term and large-scale intervention, ostensibly and to some extent actually in the service of the misguided war on drugs, by the United States has been at the very least a complicating factor.

The tension between Colombia and Venezuela has a number of roots, including the fact that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a self-proclaimed socialist in the Fidel Castro mold – though he is in many ways more like a Groucho Marxist than a Karl Marxist – believes that one key to maintaining and expanding support for his eccentric ambitions is to denounce the United States and its malevolent Yanqui Imperialism. Colombia has been the recipient of many billions of dollars in U.S. aid, primarily directed to the suppression of the coca/cocaine trade (although the U.S. has at the least winked and nodded at using it to suppress the at-least-40-year-long insurrection conducted by the ostensibly Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC).

Thus Chávez sees Colombia as essentially a satellite of the United States, and opposing Yanqui Imperialism and reducing or eliminating U.S. influence in South America means opposing Colombia. Until this week this opposition came mostly in the form of barbs and insults, along with restrictions on Venezuelan-Colombian trade, which has contributed to food shortages that have mostly affected Venezuela’s poor, the supposed object of Chávez’s tender concern.

Why has the United States given Colombia so much aid? The main reason has to do with the sacred war on drugs.

Drug warriors have long been entranced by the notion that the key to suppressing drugs is to go after the countries that produce them, even though the tactics has never worked, thanks to what some wags call the "push-down-pop-up" effect. Thus in the early 1970s the Nixon administration focused and trying to get Turkey to eradicate the cultivation of opium poppies, and the effort seemed to pay off. However, Mexicans promptly plunged into the trade and the amount of heroin coming into the United States declined hardly at all.

Later in the 1970s the U.S. pressured Mexico into cracking down on the marijuana trade, and Colombia quickly supplanted Mexico as the leading supplier. When suppression eased in Mexico in the 1980s, it quickly rebounded as a supplier.

All this was a precursor to intense pressure by Washington on the Andean countries in the 1990s to get tough on coca cultivation. When production declined somewhat in Bolivia and Peru, however, it quickly soared in neighboring Colombia, and the total amount of cocaine and other illicit drugs flowing into the United States remained about the same.

Well, a prohibitionist bureaucrat can never admit that a tactic failed because it defies the laws of economics, so the U.S. decided it had to work on the country where drug production had most recently popped up. Thus Plan Colombia, conceived in the Clinton administration and continued despite the occasional acknowledgement that it wasn’t working very well – at least not yet; hope springs eternal in the prohibition-addled drug warrior’s breast – and intensified under the Bush administration.

The original plan was for $7.5 billion in U.S. aid over a period of five years, and the Clinton administration initially committed $1.3 billion. The Bush administration has continued the funding at levels of around $640 million a year for military/police efforts and around $130 million supposedly for economic and social reconstruction.

Continuing a pattern established during previous offensives in the never-ending war on (some) drugs, the drug traffickers looked around for somebody to help protect them. They found FARC, a smaller left-wing insurrectionary group, as well as "right-wing" militias consisting mostly of former (and some current) members of the armed forces and police. This infusion of drug money in exchange for protection increased the power and ability to disrupt society of all these paramilitary groups, leading to even more disruption.

But the people in government have access to more money and resources than they would have before, so they had an incentive to declare the occasional temporary victory and keep flattering the United States. Of course this antagonized Hugo Chávez.

Hugo Chávez’s threat to go to war with Colombia is almost certainly more bluster and opportunism than a real thirst for battle. Machiavelli formulated long ago what rulers have known since the dawn of time: A leader facing problems and potential opposition at home can often prosper by turning peoples’ attention to a foreign threat or outrage, distracting the peoples’ attention from their own problems and ginning up some jingoism. The trouble is that sometimes threats and bluster escalate into real military confrontations.

The flap this week started after Colombia’s armed forces attacked a jungle camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an insurrectionary guerrilla group that has been carrying on an insurrection that has sometimes resembled a civil war for some 40 years. The trouble was that the camp was a mile or two inside neighboring Ecuador. When troops on the ground inspected the camp, they found a laptop purportedly belonging to Raul Reyes, a top FARC commander, who was killed.

Ecuador’s initial response was relatively subdued, but Mr. Chávez couldn’t wait to go into high dudgeon. He denounced Colombia as a U.S. puppet, withdrew all Venezuelan diplomats from Colombia and began moving Venezuelan troops toward the border with Colombia. Ecuador, which is virtually a satellite state of oil-rich Venezuela, also moved troops toward its border.

The Chávez response certainly fits the Machiavellian model. Although the high price of oil has brought increasing revenue into Venezuela, Chávez’s efforts to turn the country into a model socialist state have offset that cushion. Venezuela has South America’s highest inflation rate, at 22.5 percent, despite a government target of 10 percent. Shortages persist of key staples like milk, cooking oil, poultry and eggs.

The failure last December of Mr. Chávez’s constitutional referendum, which would have expanded executive power and allowed him to remain president for life, both showed the growing political opposition to President Chávez and inspired further opposition. Nationalizing the oil industry has not only brought court orders freezing state assets, it has made the industry markedly less efficient.

So a little distraction in the form of insults hurled at foreigners might just be helpful.

However, the confrontation with Colombia, which has included cutting off all trade and closing the border, may well come at a price. “Colombia is Venezuela’s second-largest supplier of goods, as well as an important provider of natural gas,” Peter Wilson wrote in Business Week.

It is difficult to imagine that the Venezuelan military has any real appetite for a fight with Colombia. As Ian Vasquez, director of the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute told me, the Colombian military is larger, has a bigger budget and better weapons and is more experienced, having fought guerrillas and narcotraffickers for years.

President Bush didn’t help the situation with a public announcement that he had called Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to tell him Colombia has the United States’ firm support. That just feeds into Hugo Chávez’s narrative that Uribe is simply a puppet of Yanqui imperialism.

Likewise, the news that the U.S. is considering a request from Panama to supply weapons, training and other materiel to suppress guerrilla activity along the Colombian border and inside Panama itself unnecessarily inserts the United States even more into a conflict from which it should be trying to extricate itself. Ideally it would conduct a realistic cost-benefit analysis of the war on drugs and decide it isn’t worth spending taxpayers’ money to make the situation worse. Short of that, however, it would do well to avoid throwing gasoline on the fire.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).