Hugo Chavez has been beating the war-scare drums since the June removal from office of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. His claims to sense the winds of war sweeping Latin America are clearly designed to boost his steadily eroding base among Venezuelans.
In recent weeks, the war-scare tactics have escalated following announcement of the Colombian-U.S. basing agreement. Mr. Chavez has insisted since a failed 2002 coup, which saw him jailed for less than 48 hours, that the United States seeks to overthrow his government. Thus, Mr. Chavez launched into full fury with the news that Colombia has granted U.S. aircraft and crews basing rights at seven air bases, and his paranoia mounted as the number of bases increased from an initial three to five and then to seven.
The Venezuelan president remained silent recently when the head of Venezuela’s Communist Party revealed that Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorist troops had crossed into Venezuela for rest and rehabilitation, a charge Mr. Chavez has always denied. He made no believable response to revelations that sophisticated rocket launchers purchased from Sweden came into the hands of Colombian terrorists. Such incidents put the lie to his claims that Colombia plans an invasion and only underscore the support Venezuela provides to forces that would bring down the Colombian government.
The current saber-rattling reprises a protracted 2008 performance when Mr. Chavez berated Colombia for killing the FARC second-in-command while the notorious narco-terrorist was encamped on Ecuador’s side of the border with Colombia. Within a week of the incident, in which Colombian air-to-ground missiles were fired from Colombian airspace, Mr. Chavez, a former Venezuelan lieutenant colonel, closed his embassy in the Colombian capital, Bogota, and a platoon of his soldiers “accidentally” entered into Colombian territory, from which they were quickly dispatched by the home side.
During last year’s war gaming, Mr. Chavez announced during his weekly radio broadcast that he had “requested” that his defense minister send 10 battalions to the Colombian frontier. Informed Venezuelan and Colombian sources report a relatively small number of troops eventually arrived.
The troops’ failure to deploy was very possibly because — suspicions of a U.S. invasion aside — the Venezuelan’s greatest concern is to maintain his rule at home. Thus, Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, is ringed with tanks and combat vehicles, and jet fighter crews remain on alert at bases nearby.
The Caracas caudillo is arming the country on a world-class scale. “Official” Venezuelan figures put his military purchases at $15 billion, although analysts say the figure could be twice as much. At whichever procurement level, Venezuela since 2000 has become the largest Latin American arms buyer and ranks eighth worldwide.
The magnitude of military materiel purchases is daunting, including 100,000 Russian AK-47 automatic weapons, 24 Sukhoi jet fighters and “dozens” of tanks and combat vehicles Mr. Chavez has said he is acquiring. Interestingly, the jet aircraft and tanks can be critically important in containing any possible domestic insurrection but are badly suited to fighting in the dense jungles along the Colombian frontier.
Equally large is the Venezuelan military’s ineptitude, particularly contrasted with Colombia’s armed forces. Following the failed 2002 coup, Mr. Chavez purged any and all suspected collaborators with the United States. Their replacements are at best mediocre.
The Colombian military is considered the best fighting force in Latin America, owing to its protracted war with the country’s narco-trafficking guerrilla armies and nearly a decade of training and equipment upgrades by the United States. In 2008, Stratfor geopolitical and intelligence analysts observed, “Colombia’s military is larger, better funded and more operationally experienced — each by a factor of 10 — than Venezuela’s.”
Realization of Venezuela’s military inferiority was an important factor in Mr. Chavez’s welcoming of the Russian fleet in the spring. Moreover, he has provided bivouacking for Colombian narco-terrorist troops, provided homes in Caracas for their leaders and similarly supported Iranian-backed Hezbollah elements.
Ironically, the person calling up the winds of war, Mr. Chavez, is a man whose own military ability has been found wanting. In a February 1992 coup he organized against former President Carlos Andres Perez, five co-leaders secured their objectives. The sixth, then-Lt. Col. Chavez, assigned himself to lead the takeover of Miraflores presidential palace and other key Caracas installations. Unlike his cohorts, Mr. Chavez failed in his effort.
Fortunately for freedom, his losing streak extends into the 21st century. After a string of Chavez-supported presidential election victories from Argentina to El Salvador, the tide could be turning. In May, free marketeer Ricardo Martinelli scored a landslide victory over his Chavez-backed leftist opponent to become president of strategically important Panama.
In June, close Chavez ally and former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and his wife, current President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, suffered crushing defeat in congressional elections (the Kirchner political faction received less than 30 percent of the vote) that virtually assure that their ultraleftist, ultracorrupt wannabe dynasty will not prevail in 2011 presidential elections.
Next could be the failure of Mr. Chavez’s massive effort to have Mr. Zelaya reinstated as president of Honduras. If Honduran resilience — president, Congress, Supreme Court, military plus 70 percent of the population — holds in the face of huge international pressure, it is entirely possible many regional political leaders, including Presidents Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Alvaro Colom of Guatemala, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Tabare Ramon Vazquez of Uruguay will withdraw their muted, often grudging support of Mr. Chavez.
Although co-conspiring Presidents Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua would likely stay with their Venezuelan compadre to the end, loss of the above fellow travelers, coupled with artful persuasion from Washington and select European capitals, could well cause Mr. Chavez to rethink running for a third presidential term in 2012.
Just a bit of wishful dreaming? Not at all. The Venezuelan dictator is well aware that his militaristic bark is far worse than his armed forces’ ability to bite.
John R. Thomson is a geopolitical analyst and former diplomat whose writing focuses on developing countries.