There’s an interesting geopolitical situation developing in South America, between Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Military hero Hugo Chavez is even raising the specter of war, though it seems unlikely to come to that.
On Saturday, Colombia launched air and ground strikes on a FARC hideout along the Colombia-Ecuador border, killing Raul Reyes, FARC’s second in command, and about eighteen other rebels. Initially, when it was thought that the attack was part of an ongoing battle that had accidentally spilled across the Putumayo River, Ecuador was unconcerned. It was soon revealed, however, that the rebels were camped out in Ecuador and were all sleeping when the raid was carried out; not only that, but the ground flank of the attack moved from the south, meaning the Colombian military was operating well inside Ecuador’s territory. Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, cried foul, saying Colombia had violated its borders and sovereignty and committed a massacre, and cut off diplomatic relations. Correa is not content with Colombia’s apology and is demanding a meeting with the OAS’s permanent council to address this “new joke at the expense of the … people of Ecuador.”
Chavez, obviously stinging that a conflict was happening in his neighborhood that he wasn’t a part of, made sure Venezuela got in on the action also. He recalled his diplomatic corps and sent ten thousand troops to the border in case Colombia decided to carry out an attack on Venezuelan territory, which he declared would be an act of war: “Don’t even think about it or I will launch an air attack.” To drive the point home, he called Colombia “the Israel of Latin America” and “a terrorist state that is subject to the great terrorist, the government of the United States and their [sic] apparatus.”
While some have surmised that the State Department must have ordered the attack, such speculation is both specious and tautological: At three billion dollars a year, the United States is almost single-handedly priming the Colombian “civil” war. It’s sometimes hard to figure out why it is, as the almost fifty-year-old conflict is a Cold War relic, with its Marxist-vs.-freedom-fighter taxonomy and long, bloody skirmishes over territory. It could even be argued that Ecuador and Venezuela, with their oil- and export-oriented economies, are much more contained within the circuits of labor and capital and the neoliberal world order than is Colombia, with its narco-dependent and public-sector-heavy economy. But it’s not my place to question the wisdom or logic of the United States, so I won’t.
Ironically (or not), however, despite the fact that up to half of Colombia’s territory is not controlled by the recognized central government, constituted power in Colombia is stronger than in most other Latin American countries: Colombians are caught between an extremely militarized state and an extremely militarized state-in-waiting, with the United States willing to fill the gaps that occur. In Ecuador and Venezuela, things are much different, and it’s here where the significance of the “tension” of the last few days arises. Correa is occupying a post whose last three inhabitants have been driven from office and is administering a population in an almost permanent state of restiveness. Chavez, for his part, has just lost a nationwide referendum and is witnessing massive abstentions from his popular revolution. Both are discovering the challenges of capturing excessive political demanding. And both are meeting the challenges from within in a familiar way: by creating an enemy from without.