Analysis; Chavez' Saber-Rattling Doesn't Mean War in Andes Yet - Analysts

Manila Bulletin, March 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

Analysis; Chavez' Saber-Rattling Doesn't Mean War in Andes Yet - Analysts


Byline: FRANK BAJAK Associated Press Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia - Judging by the fever-pitch rhetoric, the Andes region was girding for war on Monday. The leftist presidents of Venezuela and Ecuador recalled ambassadors from Bogota and began moving tanks and troops to reinforce their borders with Colombia.

But will this political theater lead to war? Probably not.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela warned darkly that Colombia and its U.S. military backers may trigger "war in South America" with commando raids like the one that killed a key leftist rebel commander across the border in Ecuador.

Relations have clearly hit bottom between President Alvaro Uribe and his leftist neighbors. Even the ailing Fidel Castro weighed in, writing that "The trumpets of war are being heard in our continent's south as a result of the genocidal plans of the Yankee empire."

But there is little appetite for armed conflict in the region despite Chavez's recent purchases of US$ 3 billion in Russian arms, including 53 military helicopters, 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles and 24 SU-30 Sukhoi fighter jets.

The economic costs, to begin with, are far too high.

Too many people depend on cross-border trade worth US$ 5 billion a year, most of it Colombian exports sorely needed by Venezuelans already suffering milk and meat shortages. Ecuador depends on some US$ 1.8 billion in trade with Colombia.

And militarily, Colombia has become a formidable foe, thanks in large part to US$ 5 billion (euro3.29 billion) in aid from Washington since 2000. U.S. military advisers are sprinkled throughout Colombia's military, and Washington could quickly ramp up support if war broke out.

Chavez's critics say his saber-rattling is intended to deflect attention from mounting domestic woes.

"You can't keep playing with the future of this country," said Venezuelan opposition leader Manuel Rosales, whom Chavez defeated handily in the last presidential election. He accused Chavez of trying to "stir up nationalist sentiment to hide the truth of this country, which is falling to pieces."

Chavez's cause also wasn't helped by Colombia's discovery of what it described as damaging documents in three laptop computers seized at the jungle camp of Raul Reyes, the slain spokesman for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Reyes was the rebels' main interlocutor with foreign governments other emissaries, reporting directly to the FARC's seven-man ruling secretariat, of which he was a member.

According to Colombia's national police director, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, the seized files are "tremendously revelatory" and are being examined with the help of U.S. experts.

One document, apparently written in February, suggests Venezuela recently gave the rebels US$ 300 million, while another suggests the rebels were shopping for 50 kilos of uranium, said Naranjo.

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