Something strange happens to the roads in eastern Colombia. As you near the Venezuelan border, you suddenly come across long, dead-straight stretches that are about eight lanes wide. They are, of course, emergency airstrips for the Colombian air force to use in the event of a war with Venezuela, and they date back to a period long before the current crisis between the two countries.
But they are still there, and the topic is on the table again.
It’s hard to know how seriously to take Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s threats of war with Colombia, because he often talks like that.
Speaking on his weekly television show, Chávez denounced last weekend’s Colombian military incursion into Ecuador. “This could be the start of a war in South America,” he warned, addressing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
“If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I’ll send some Sukhois [Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela].”
Then, intoxicated by his own rhetoric, Chávez upped the ante: “Mr. Defence Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me immediately – tank battalions. Deploy the air force. We don’t want war, but we aren’t going to permit the Empire [his term for the United States]... to divide and weaken us.”
All very exciting stuff, but can he be serious? There hasn’t been a war between South American countries in over 80 years.
The trigger for this crisis was a Colombian raid early Saturday that killed Raúl Reyes, the second-in-command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and 16 of his companions. It was an important success in Alvaro Uribe’s long war against the Marxist guerrilla army, but there was one little problem: it all happened on the far side of Colombia’s border with Ecuador.
Colombia initially apologized, explaining that its troops had come under fire from the FARC band, but it later became clear that Reyes and his men had been betrayed by a spy and killed in their sleep.
The border violation was deliberate and premeditated. Two friendly governments might still have smoothed the matter over, but these are not friendly governments.
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, like Venezuela’s Chávez, is one of the “new left’’ leaders of South America, whereas Uribe is a conservative with close U.S. ties.
Both Correa and Chávez see FARC as a legitimate contender for power in Colombia. Chávez even eulogized Reyes as a “good revolutionary” and condemned his “cowardly murder.”
Uribe (whose father was killed by FARC in a bungled kidnap attempt) has gradually been winning his war against the guerrilla organization: numbers of commanders have been killed or captured, and there is now a steady flow of defectors.
Nothing could be better for Colombia than an end to this crippling five-decade insurgency whose leaders still spout the antique Marxist rhetoric of the 1960s.
The Colombians have long suspected that Chávez allows FARC units to rest and retrain on Venezuelan soil. Correa has only been in power for a little over a year, but the Colombian army claims to have found a letter from Reyes to the FARC high command on the dead man’s hard drive in which he recounts his discussions with Ecuador’s security minister about establishing a permanent link with Correa’s government.
So the Colombian government suspects both its neighbours of aiding and abetting FARC, and it may well be right. Venezuela and Ecuador fear that the recent Colombian incursion into the latter’s territory may be only the first of many, and they also worry that the U.S. is encouraging such attacks as a way to destabilize these two leftist governments. They, too, may be right.
Given these concerns and calculations, the apparent overreaction of Chávez and Correa – Ecuador has also dispatched troops to the Colombian border, and both countries have expelled their Colombian ambassadors – may be quite rational.
They may be trying to overstretch the Colombian army and give it a two-front problem in order to protect their FARC friends.
But they’d never actually go to war, would they? It still seems very unlikely, in particular because the far more experienced Colombian army would dismantle any forces the Ecuadorians sent against it in a matter of days. Venezuela and Colombia are more evenly matched, and for that very reason it would not be in either government’s interest to have a war: neither side would win.
So that’s settled, then. Except that I keep remembering those emergency airstrips. Even long before Uribe and Chávez came to power, somebody thought a war was likely enough that they spent all that money preparing for it.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.