Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Will the Moderate Latin Left Stop Chávez’s March to War?

The stupidest war in the world right now is the one being waged against the Colombian state by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

You look at other conflicts and you can sort of understand: Country X thinks country Z stole its land and wants to get it back; or tyrant A can be ousted only by force; or group B wants to behead everyone who doesn’t worship god C.

You don’t have to agree with any side in those wars -- you can believe, for instance, that group B consists of medieval lunatic murderers. Still, you know why they are fighting.

Such is not the case in Colombia’s four-decades-old conflict. The country has been a democracy all those years, with a vigorously free press and competitive elections that have resulted in left-leaning presidents some years, right-leaning presidents other years (as is the case now).

But FARC takes part in no elections, unlike the former guerrilla group known as M-19, which had a far-left agenda similar to FARC’s but disarmed and entered the Colombian political process in the late 1980s. Instead, FARC devotes itself to kidnapping people, selling cocaine and killing innocent civilians in attacks on small country towns. It was declared a terrorist group by the European Union and the governments of Colombia and the United States.

The conflict remained ostensibly local until last week, when the Colombian armed forces struck a FARC base inside Ecuadorean territory and killed Raul Reyes, one of the top two or three FARC commanders. According to Colombia’s national police chief Gen. Oscar Naranjo, documents seized at the camp say that FARC operatives are in the market for uranium, and that Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez sent the group some $300 million.

Naturally, Ecuador protested Colombia’s violation of its territory. Just as understandably, Colombia protested Ecuador turning a blind eye to terrorists in Ecuadorean territory. Chavez and his Ecuadorean ally Rafael Correa withdrew their ambassadors in Bogota and closed Colombian embassies in their capitals.

Then sabers got rattled. Chavez ordered troops and tanks (as many as 200) to the border, and Ecuador sent troops, too. South America is at the brink of a war the likes of which it has never seen.

There have been wars there before, bloody ones too. In the War of the Triple Alliance, fought from 1864 to 1870, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay defeated Paraguay and killed nearly its entire male population of fighting age. About a decade later Chile fought Bolivia and took land Bolivia still claims. As recently as 1995 Peru and Ecuador had a brief shoot’em-up with about 100 total killed over a disputed border.

But never has there been a war between nations that was a direct result of competing global political ideologies. The current crisis has the potential to start the first one. Even if FARC is nothing more than a very big, well-armed gang of drug-dealing thugs posing as Marxist-Leninist ideologues, Chavez’s rantings about Colombian President Alvaro Uribe being a lackey of the United States guarantees this will not be your average South American territorial war.

Which is why Chavez’s yawners about imperialistas Yanquis now take an ominous tone. Is he crazy enough to go to war with Colombia?

It doesn’t look as if Colombia is going to give him an excuse. Uribe has refrained from massing his own troops on the borders, an attempt to de-escalate the crisis. Besides, since Colombia’s extraterritorial excursion was on Ecuadorean soil, not Venezuelan, what is Chavez doing in the middle of this?

Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel laid it out at a Caracas press conference this week: “It is not against the people of Colombia, but rather the expansionist designs of the empire,” he said, according to The New York Times.

It’s a Chavez fantasy: defeat the United States by defeating Colombia.

It is up to the sane left in Latin America -- Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet in Chile -- to tell Chavez that the region will not accept his attempt to turn South America’s stupidest war into its most dangerous. It will have to say, in the king of Spain’s famous phrase, “Why don’t you shut up.”

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