- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

One week ago, a crisis in the Andes seemed ready to erupt. Venezuelan troops had moved to the Colombian border after the latter’s raid on guerrilla encampments in Ecuador. Presidential insults were flying. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez talked of war. But by Friday, it was over. Mr. Chavez re-established diplomatic relations almost as quickly as he ended them, pledging to demobilize his troops. The three presidents Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Mr. Chavez shook hands at the Rio group summit in the Dominican Republic, setting a path to normalcy. In this story are several lessons for the Western Hemisphere.

The first and unsurprising lesson is that concerted diplomacy worked the way it is supposed to. Regional players each weighed on Mr. Chavez to back down. These included figures from the Organization of American States and heads of state, including Brazil’s and Argentina’s. Many lament the Bush administration’s continuing inattention to Latin America. But here, a discreet approach played to a resolution’s favor. The United States kept a very low public profile, robbing Mr. Chavez of the “Yankee imperialism” card. Meanwhile, Colombia apologized, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa accepted the apology, the FARC suffered the loss of a top militant and troubling new charges that Mr. Chavez funnelled $300 million to the FARC guerrillas have emerged. Some “honest broker” he should purport to be. Mr. Chavez’s mediation between Colombia and the FARC broke down in November.

The other lesson here is one that Hugo Chavez would rather not advertise. He bluffs. This is not to say that Mr. Chavez is harmless. He is a significant threat to regional stability and to U.S. security. Mr. Chavez believes that “Oil is a geopolitical weapon.” He has purchased considerable numbers of Russian SU-30 Sukhoi fighter jets and helicopters as if preparing for war. He imports Kalashnikov assault rifles, purportedly to arm his reservists. This is no peacemaker. But clearly this is a person who uses geopolitics just as he abuses Venezuela’s domestic political arrangements to consolidate power and extend his rule. He provokes, seeing what advantage may come.

The real danger with Mr. Chavez comes when he miscalculates. As last week’s events demonstrate, the element of surprise is his greatest weapon. Fortunately, in this case, cooler heads prevailed.

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