Show of Strength: Hugo Chavez Says He Wants to Bring Peace to the Warring Factions in Colombia's Cocaine Wars but His Increasing Militarism Could Destabilise the Region

Article excerpt

Squinting into the glare of the late-afternoon Caribbean sun, hundreds of pleated khaki-dressed soldiers and military dignitaries form orderly rows facing their chief of staff and head of state, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Positioned on stage and flanked by a few lines of tanks and helicopters in a military training ground in the provincial city of Valencia, western Venezuela, President Chavez waits for the roaring fighter jets to pass overhead before addressing the assembly.

"From Colombia, Venezuela is threatened," Chavez says, dismissing as "inventions" widespread allegations that his government has colluded with drug trafficking and arms sales to Colombian guerrillas.

The speech is being delivered to mark the 16th anniversary of the attempted coup led by the then-young Lieutenant Colonel Chavez on 4 February 1992. Although it ended in failure and Chavez and his cohorts were imprisoned, many believe the event--now commonly referred to as 4F--paved the way for his eventual democratic election to the presidency in 1998.

But while the Venezuelan president was commemorating his failed putsch, over a million protesters took to the streets in neighbouring Colombia and in cities across the world to voice their opposition to Chavez's hostage-taking rebel allies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

In an almost implausible coincidence, anti-Farc campaigners chose 4 February to mobilise a global protest against the Marxist insurgents. They maintain that the event was entirely apolitical and directed only at the rebel fighters, but in a statement on their website they denounce Chavez's "interventions in the internal matters of Colombia and, particularly, his declarations which seek to justify the Farc as a representation of the Colombian people".

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Chavez's inflammatory comments about the threat from Colombia came two days after he declared that the Venezuelan armed forces were "on alert" against possible aggressions from the neighbouring country. In a televised broadcast, the president had warned: "We don't know how far it could go. We don't want to hurt anybody, but no one should make a mistake with us."

He added: "One day things will change in Colombia," referring to the cocaine-fuelled civil war that has raged across the border for almost 60 years. "Theirs is a war in which we cannot participate except as peacemakers."

His words have further aggravated the deepening diplomatic crisis with Bogota. After successfully negotiating the release of two hostages held by the Farc, he requested that these narco-rebels be removed from lists of international terrorist organisations and expressed an ideological affinity with their insurgent cause.

"The Farc and [National Liberation Army] ELN are not terrorist bodies. They are real armies that occupy space in Colombia. That must be recognised. They are insurgent forces with a Bolivarian political project, which here we respect," Chavez said in his yearly address to the National Assembly on 11 January.

As the anti-Farc movement gathered global momentum through social networking sites such as Facebook, it was quickly seized upon by the Colombian government. On the day of protest, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe even delivered a message of thanks to marchers in the city of Valledupar. "Our gratitude goes to all Colombians who today expressed with dignity and strength their rejection of kidnapping and kidnappers," Reuters reported him as saying.

Back at the Valencia barracks, Venezuelan officials reacted truculently. Jesus Gonzalez, the strategic commander of the armed forces, rejected it as a "political ploy to try to identify 4 February with opposition to the Fare".

President Chavez reminded his army and onlookers of the history behind the day's celebrations. "The events of4 February [1992] swept Venezuela into the 21st century. …