Cheat-Seeking Missles

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Insider's View On Chavez' Recent Saber Rattling

My step-dad (Bill) is a retired senior Foreign Service Officer who led a fascinating career and has maintained long-time friendships with some very bright foreign policy folks.

He forwarded this analysis of the current situation in Venezuela to me. It was authored by a Foreign Service acquaintance who Bill holds in very high regard, but he asked that I refer to the author only as "a friend of my stepfather." So with no further adieu:
Finally got around to reading the journalist's note on Venezuela/Ecuador vs. Colombia, which was true when written but explained nothing.

Colombia's civil war began in 1948 and the FARC guerrillas trace their ancestry to that date. Then, it was a group of passionate revolutionaries ­ today it is a 20,000 man criminal enterprise, led by rich thugs who make a fine living from cocaine. Reyes, the FARCs # 2 whom Colombia killed just inside Ecuador, was wearing in his jungle camp a ROLEX worth $10,000.

It's not surprising that Colombia got Reyes, who thought himself untouchable in Ecuador, even using his camp for a classroom for "internationals," among them 10 Mexican students (most died in the air strike).

The most important aspect may have been the "information warfare" bonus. Seizure of Reyes' computers and a notebook at his rainforest office have already led Costa Rican police to a cache of $500,000 in moldy $100s in the back yard of a 79 year old professor ­ an aging Robespierre who kept a rainy day fund for the FARC.

The moral, your e-mail is not secure. In more important places, among them Mexico and Brasil, information from Reyes's files is also being tracked.

So while Ecuador got an apology and Chavez strutted, Colombia and President Uribe won big. Reputable polls show Uribe's popularity has risen from near 60% to 82%. The only dissonant note: President Bush ­ unpopular in much of Latin America, ­ broke s recent sensible silence about Chavez to growl loudly, a welcome diversion for Chavez and for the FARC. [Would he have criticized a Bill Clinton statement in a similar situation? I doubt it.]

None of this means the war on drugs goes well, it doesn't. But Colombia may have won a decisive battle against a shrinking FARC, a good thing.

Mindful of Scotty Reston's dictum that "the American people will do anything for Latin America except read about it," I will stop, before you delete all reference to Latin America from your computers.
But he goes on ...
Hardly anyone in the U.S., with the exception of the Spanish language news media, paid attention to the Venezuela and Ecuador vs. Colombia dust up. Now that their Presidents have shaken hands in Santo Domingo, Latin America will be forgotten, until the next crisis.

Colombia got its man (plus the gift of another of the FARC's top leadership). Most Colombians, who detest the FARC and support Uribe because he vigorously prosecutes the war, think an apology is not a heavy price for striking a hard blow at the insurgency.

For Ecuador, the crisis was about honor. That may sound strange, but history has given Ecuador a losers complex with respect to its larger neighbors. Uribe's apology settles the matter, until the next incident.

The chief protagonist, however, is Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

That's probably true for Ecuador, but not for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has a blood feud with Colombia and President Alvaro Uribe. Chavez will keep on backing the narco-guerrilla FARC, simply because it is a way of striking at the U. S.

Now the FARC, which has just suffered some hard blows, is nowhere near taking Colombia, who democratic [sorry; the text gets messed up here]

Experts say no; the parties want control of the narrative about who is at fault, not fight. Ecuador voted for an OAS resolution that fell short of its demands though the text gave the Correa government satisfaction by noting Colombia's violation of Ecuador's territory. By accepting OAS good offices, Ecuador, which doesn't have the military horses, signaled a desire for peace.

If this were only about Ecuador and Colombia we could be confident the OAS, with a fine record of defusing state on state conflicts, would talk the dispute to death. The real protagonist, however, is Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has a blood feud with Colombia and President Alvaro Uribe, mostly because Chavez backs the FARC's narco-guerillas as a way to get at the U.S.

In the conventional wisdom, Chavez goads the U.S., knowing that we recognize that hostilities would drive oil prices through the roof and that our forces are tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps that is still true, but his calculations may be changing.

It is important to recognize that Chavez sees himself as the heir of Simon Bolivar, who liberated South America from Spain. In Chavez's mind, he is the new "Liberator," destined to throw off the Yankee yoke. He takes heart from OPEC's success in damaging the American economy but his effort to build an anti-U.S. coalition has not gone well, massive expenditures to support Latin political friends notwithstanding.

Today, Bolivia and Nicaragua are acolytes, while Ecuador and Argentina are friends. Brazil humors Chavez but ignores him when it comes to Brazil's vast ties with the U.S. Elsewhere, he is often detested, for meddling and for his anti-democratic stance. By helping the FARC, which is nowhere near taking power, he has earned the enmity of most Colombians.

Chavez is in a race against time before his popularity runs out at home. Oil production is declining and inflation the highest in the Western Hemisphere. He is about to lose his favorite target, a Bush administration unpopular in much of Latin America.

Our next President, regardless of party, is likely to enjoy warmer relations with the region. A policy of giving Chavez enough rope with which to hang himself could pay off in 2009.

Autocrats in trouble at home resort to foreign adventures. If Chavez recognizes he is on the clock, a war with Colombia may commend itself as a way to drag U.S. forces into the fray, a last chance to mobilize Latin America before declining fortunes and a new U.S. administration cut short his Bolivarian destiny.

None of this, except for trying to bankrupt the U.S. through oil, is rational to us. But in Chavez's Mussolini-style search for glory, war may be logical.
Uribe is alert to this possibility; by not responding to Chavez's troops on the frontier, he positioned Colombia to avoid blame, should Chavez initiate hostilities.

That is key, for Uribe and for ourselves -- no ambiguity about who is the aggressor, should Chavez use force. In Latin America, self defense beats pre-emption every time. In saying this I don't want to fall into what Secretary Gates ­ back when he was DDI -- used to tell me was stuff for a "Cassandra column."

What Teodoro Petkoff (Venezuelan guerrilla turned staunch democrat) said may well be correct: "Chavez barks but will not bite." But have shin guards
handy, just in case.
Despite some breaks and mysterious repetition, perhaps caused when it was copied and forwarded to me, I thought the piece insightful and worth sharing.

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