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Monday, November 9, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

Via the BBC:  Chavez steps up Colombia war talk

"Let’s not waste a day on our main aim: to prepare for war and to help the people prepare for war, because it is everyone’s responsibility," Mr Chavez said during his TV and radio show Alo, Presidente.

Mr Chavez has also ordered 15,000 troops to the border, citing increased violence by Colombian paramilitary groups.

While this is all ultimately a lot of bluster and rhetoric, it is highly irresponsible bluster and rhetoric on the part of the Venezuelan President.   However, it is not the first time he has engaged in this type of action.  Precisely why he has decided to ramp up the rhetoric now is not entirely clear, although at least one proximate cause was the recent killings of a Colombian amateur soccer team near the border, with their bodies being found in Venezuela (see the BBC:  Colombian football team ‘killed’ and Boz:  Colombia-Venezuela border massacre).

In another post, Boz suggests three possibilities for Chávez’s behavior:

  1. He is honestly concerned about the new US-Colombia security agreement and plots coming from over the border.
  2. He is trying to cover for falling poll numbers, rising crime, electricity shortages and other domestic problems.
  3. He is increasing federal control via the military of a border region controlled by opposition politicians.

I will add a fourth:  genuine concern about violence from Colombia spilling over into Venezuela.   Of course, were that the case, he could just say so and not talk about preparing for war.

In regards to #2, an AP write-up on the story noted the following:

Elsa Cardoso, a professor of international relations at the Central University of Venezuela, suggested that Chavez’s heated rhetoric — coupled with the recent military deployments — are aimed at turning the public’s attention away from pressing domestic problems ranging from rampant crime to electricity and water rationing.

"He’s sending up a smoke screen, a distraction," she said.

The bottom line is that a) there is nothing for Chávez to gain from a war with Colombia and, b) Venezuela would likely lose such a confrontation. As such, it is difficult to take the saber-rattling seriously.

Also of note in terms of evaluating a likely military confrontation (via Reuters):

Despite friction, annual bilateral trade has blossomed to $7 billion. Flush with cash from a boom in its principal export, oil, Venezuela has snapped up Colombian farm produce and cars, in exchange for fuel and chemicals. Colombian businesses are worried that this time Chavez could make a dent in commerce. He has already promised to look for replacements for Colombian imports from Argentina and Brazil. But many experts believe the proximity of Colombia and the long history of trade and contacts mean two-way commerce will keep flowing.

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9 Responses to “Chávez Prepares for War”

  1. Max Lybbert Says:

    I’m worried that we’re looking at Venezuela and Iran through the wrong eyes. Democracies like the US tend to avoid war because the cost — at least politically — is very high if things drag on. However, dictatorships are much more willing to go to war, partly because once they’ve ruined their own economy they need new resources — often resources in neighboring countries — to prop up their cronies.

    I’m concerned we’re making assumptions that since the US wouldn’t start a war in Venezuela’s shoes, then Venezuela won’t either. That’s too optimistic, as a lot of sad experiences can tell us.

  2. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    My views really have nothing to do with viewing Venezuela through a US lens. My view is predicated on a number of factors, not the least of which is we have seen this from Chavez before. Further, I do not see how a war would actually help Chavez domestically, and indeed it might be the best way to threaten his power position. There is just nothing for him to gain by a war with Colombia.

    What historical example do you think provides an analog here?

  3. Max Lybbert Says:

    Some examples of dictatorships starting wars that open democracies would likely forgo include:

    * Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands
    * Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to fix its economy after nearly a decade of war with Iran
    * The Iran-Iraq war, which also dragged on longer than it would have had either or both countries faced reelection
    * Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia
    * North Korea’s invasion of South Korea
    * Russia’s various operations in Chechnya (Russia is officially a democracy, but elections aren’t competitive enough to change the calculus of whether to start a war)
    * Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus

    Although some of these operations were successful (depending on the definition of “success”) they weren’t guaranteed victories for the invading country. If the US’s chance of success in Iraq or Afghanistan had been thought to be as low as Argentina’s when it invaded the Falkland Islands (“well win so long as Great Britain doesn’t decide to fight back”), or if the chance for a prolonged fight been as high as it was for Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, North Korea, Russia or Turkey then the US would have relied more on diplomacy*.

    According to the book “Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places,” dictators have discovered they can be a little more adventurous than democracies when it comes to picking fights. A failed war for a democracy (failure meaning either losing or simply having the war drag on for a long time) creates a regime change, while a failed war for a dictatorship doesn’t cause regime change. Dictators generally keep power so long as they can bribe a small number of necessary supporters. When their economy fails, bribing supporters becomes much harder. Instead of fixing their economy, dictators are far more likely to try to annex some neighboring resources.

    —-

    * Note: Clearly there has been prolonged fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question, however, is “would the US have invaded if it knew the chances for prolonged fighting were as bad as the chances in these other conflicts?” Or, more generally, “would (insert open democracy here) start a war unless success wasn’t believed to be absolutely guaranteed? Would (insert dictatorship here)?”

  4. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful response.

    However, of those listed, I still don’t see a good example for telling us that Venezuela is, indeed, likely to attack Colombia (or, for that matter, the Iran is likely to start a war any time soon).

    BTW, almost all of those listed are examples of long-standing territorial disputes.

  5. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    Also: I take the point about authoritarian governments being, at least in theory, more likely to be the aggressor (although I am thinking that there is some empirical evidence to suggest otherwise, but I am blanking as the reading in question).

    In regards to: “would (insert open democracy here) start a war unless success wasn’t believed to be absolutely guaranteed? Would (insert dictatorship here)?”, if one is coming from the perspective of basic realism, the issues of regime type is utterly irrelevant—although from the liberal school, it would be assumed to matter–specifically in regards to democracies going to war with other democracies.

  6. Max Lybbert Says:

    I can’t say that Venezuela is likely to attack (or that Iran is likely to attack); just that the things that moderate the US from attacking don’t moderate Venezuela or Iran. And that poor economies often goad countries into attacking, especially when attacking doesn’t necessarily cause regime change and failing to attack may well cause regime change.

    But to be entirely honest, I have no idea how many countries came close to invading a neighbor and then didn’t invade. Without that information it’s impossible to say how likely something is. But it’s still overly optimistic to say “we wouldn’t attack in this situation, therefore they won’t either” (not that you’ve used those words).

    You have said:

    The bottom line is that a) there is nothing for Chávez to gain from a war with Colombia and, b) Venezuela would likely lose such a confrontation. As such, it is difficult to take the saber-rattling seriously.

    As for (a): I’m not convinced because Chavez’s calculus is different from the calculus we would use, in fact a struggling economy may well push Chavez into action. As for (b): if likelihood of losing (or at least a better than average chance of losing) would prevent dictatorships from launching wars, the world would be a better place. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  7. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    However, I am not basing my assessment on the calculus we would use, even assuming that those calculations would be different.

    And, BTW, as much as I am a critic of Chavez’s vis-a-vis Venezuelan democratic development, the fact of the matter is that he will, in fact, face re-election, which blunts part of your argument.

    (b): if likelihood of losing (or at least a better than average chance of losing) would prevent dictatorships from launching wars, the world would be a better place. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    I am not sure that this is an empirically supportable statement.

  8. Max Lybbert Says:

    the fact of the matter is that (Chavez) will, in fact, face re-election, which blunts part of your argument.

    How competitive will those elections be? Will Chavez allow freedom of the press, free association, political demonstrations against his rule? Even assuming that he doesn’t outright stuff the ballot box, there is a big difference between Venezuelan elections and US elections.

    But, no worries, because Jimmy Carter and the UN will be there to make sure the *counting* is done correctly. Because, you know, that’s the important part.

  9. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    Max,

    Venezuela is not a totalitarian society–although precisely how democratic it is a very serious(and open)question. One of the more significant problems that democracy faces in Venezuela is the utter lack of an effective opposition (which has been true since the collapse of the old party system, a collapse that had nothing to do with Chavez and is what allowed him to come to power (via election, btw) in the first place). However, an unnecessary and costly war with Colombia might allow an coherent opposition to form. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I think a war is unlikely.


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