Should Chavez's Threats Against Colombia Be Taken Seriously?

The Los Angeles Times provides an interview with regional analyst Maruja Tarre, currently based in Caracas, Venezuela on how seriously Hugo Chavez’s saber rattling against Colombia should be taken:

Should Chavez be taken seriously? Yes, says Maruja Tarre, former international relations professor with a degree from Harvard Kennedy School and now a Caracas-based consultant to multinational firms.

With his revolution losing popularity amid rising inflation, rampant crime, a stagnant economy, and frequent water shortages and power outages, Chavez needs a galvanizing event, she says. A border skirmish, if not a full-fledged war, would solidify his support base ahead of next year’s legislative elections and give his Bolivarian Revolution the heroic episode that it lacks.

Tarre was interviewed Tuesday at her home in Caracas.

Verbal assaults by Chavez are nothing new. People usually react by saying it’s all talk. Should his threats be taken any more seriously this time?

There have always been problems with Colombia owing to our long and dangerous shared border. But problems in the past were related to marine territorial limits, which have never been clear.

But that issue that existed for decades, and involves oil, has disappeared under Chavez. Now the conflict is ideological, and the two leaders are more antagonistic than ever in personality and the vision they have for their countries and Latin America. The antagonism began when Chavez said Venezuela is neutral in the war between the Colombian government and the guerrillas. That’s a new position, because Venezuela has always supported the government.

That’s Colombia’s argument. What is Chavez’s excuse for being upset?

Undoubtedly it’s the increased U.S. military presence in Colombia, and Chavez has good reason to be nervous. Up to now he has had carte blanche in Latin America to do what he wanted, including help for the Colombian guerrillas, and people seemed to look the other way. So with the vigilance and advanced technology at these bases, it won’t be so easy for Chavez. Opposition Gov. Cesar Perez of the [Venezuelan] border state of Tachira has said Colombian guerrillas have camps in his state, that Chavez does nothing, but no one could document it. Now it will be easier to document. This is why Chavez is nervous. They are going to monitor him more.

So you don’t acceptthe Americans’ version, that they are merely transferring to Colombia the anti-drug and anti-terrorism flights that were in Manta, Ecuador?

I’m no military expert, but I imagine the bases will offer advanced monitoring technology and that they will use it to keep closer vigilance of Chavez. I think it’s intelligent policy on the part of [President] Obama.

He’d welcome a border incident?

Such an event would justify him getting rid of two opposition border governors [Perez and Pablo Perez of Zulia state] by allowing him to appoint some military governor over them. Chavez is already isolating Tachira and Zulia by claiming the two states are traitors and want to secede from Venezuela. He did the same thing with opposition mayors, taking their budgets, police, offices and powers and naming someone above them.

Does this fight matter to the region?

You’re beginning to see a reaction against Chavez and his continual interference. Peru’s president, Alan Garcia, has a very anti-Chavez attitude. Chile may soon elect a right-wing president. There are leftist leaders like Mauricio Funes in El Salvador, who has made it clear he is not another Chavez. Honduras may have been a turning point. Chavez saw President Manuel Zelaya as the next one in line to get a new constitution and lifetime presidency. But it didn’t turn out that way. Chavez interfered and the people reacted.

Do Venezuelans support a war?

The polls say 80% oppose war, although Chavez would say the question should be, who would defend the homeland in the face of an attack by imperialist lackeys. . . . There is an enormous rejection of war, especially in the border zone where it is impossible to distinguish between who is Venezuelan and Colombian, an area where this kind of hate doesn’t exist.

Chavez has told the nation to prepare for war. Is it?

He has bought a lot of arms, from Russia, Belarus and China, but how prepared he is, I don’t know. Keep in mind, the last time something like this happened, in March 2008, he was attacking Colombia during his TV show “Alo Presidente” and suddenly said send 10 tank battalions to the frontier! The defense minister sitting there in the first row looked surprised but never moved. And they all ended the show dancing hip-hop.

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