Venezuela's strongman Hugo Chávez recently warned that the "winds of war" were blowing in South America, and called on his military to "prepare for combat" against neighboring Colombia, a U.S. ally. Should we take his prediction seriously, or is this another cry of "wolf" by the loud lieutenant colonel? And how worried should be the American government be in either case?
An overt Venezuela-Colombia war is unlikely. To be sure, saber-rattling by someone who wears battle fatigues in public cannot be ignored. But Chávez's generals are in no mood to face the Colombians or anyone else. Corruption and politicization have weakened Venezuela's military, despite its acquisition of billions of dollars of Russian and other foreign weaponry. Plus, in his 10 years in power, Chávez has only ever pointed his guns at defenseless Venezuelan civilians. Bullies like him do not forewarn their intended victims. He does not fight openly, preferring to intervene covertly -- either directly or through his regional "anti-imperialist" alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a collection of the highest-decibel, lowest performing leaders in the region, from countries including Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and, until June, Honduras.
Honduras has been the most recent target of Chávez's subversion. There, he convinced a gullible follower, Manuel Zelaya, to retain his office through ALBA's so-far successful modus operandi: After reaching power democratically, change the rules, neutralizing the legislative and judicial systems so that no opposition leader can ever rise democratically again. Chávez has guided this strategy in Bolivia and Ecuador, and ALBA member Daniel Ortega is attempting the same in Nicaragua. Thankfully, however, Honduras's institutions of democracy -- the justice system and legislature -- proved too strong. The Supreme Court unanimously found Zelaya guilty of high crimes and ordered the military to remove him from office.
Losing Zelaya -- the first reversal in the drive to spread "21st Century Socialism" in the region -- has driven Chávez to near hysteria. He has repeatedly promised to "overthrow" the new Honduran president, Roberto Micheletti, who was constitutionally appointed to office by an overwhelming congressional vote. (All but three members of Zelaya's own party voted for Micheletti.) No Chávez soldiers have been spotted in Honduras, but there are reports that Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence operatives are fomenting violence in order to damage the government's image, a common tactic in Latin America.
In Colombia, Chávez cries wolf to disguise his concealed aggression, such as his support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), internationally condemned as a "narco-terrorist organization." The discovery of Venezuelan support for terrorists has routinely triggered Chávez's public tantrums. In March 2008, for example, Colombian Special Forces raided a FARC command and training camp situated more than a mile inside Ecuador. They captured laptops belonging to the FARC's second-in-command, Raul Reyes, who was killed in the assault. The computers revealed Chavez's long-standing financial, political, diplomatic, and military aid to the FARC. They documented Chávez's offer of $300 million for the FARC in Colombia and for other Marxist groups in Latin America, as well as collaboration with and political contributions to Ecuadorian President (and ALBA cheerleader) Rafael Correa, one of Chávez's most vocal allies. Correa and other leftist leaders condemned Colombia for its "violation of Ecuador's sovereignty" -- rather than denouncing the presence of a transnational terrorist camp, which must have existed with government acquiescence.