It's Time to Confront Hugo Chavez

By Jorge Castaneda

In early September, Colombia's biggest businesses surprised everyone by declaring their wholehearted support for the country's president, Alvaro Uribe, in his deepening conflict with Venezuela. If they lost the huge export market next door, well, that would simply be too bad.

For the first time, Colombian exporters of just about everything Venezuela buys, from toilet paper to gasoline, fruit and vegetables, and milk and meat, gave their president the green light to confront Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, instead of continuing to turn the other cheek, as they had been pressing him to do in the eight years since Uribe took office.

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Venezuela had become a magnificent business opportunity for Colombian exporters. It produces next to nothing anymore (except oil), has a highly subsidised official exchange rate, and wields huge sums of petrodollars with which it can buy up everything in sight. While Colombia's authorities were forced to deal with Chávez's frequent insults, interventions in Colombia's internal affairs, massive arms purchases, and diplomatic tantrums, the business community profited and pressured the government to compromise. Until now, that is what the government did.

The hesitation of Colombia's business community to confront Chávez may prove to have been the last remaining hurdle for Uribe, the United States, and a handful of Latin American democracies to clear before they could face up to Chávez. It is past time that they did.

The Venezuelan lieutenant colonel has repeatedly provided sanctuary, arms, diplomatic support, and financing to the FARC guerrillas fighting to overthrow the Colombian government. He has engaged in immense arms purchases from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, most recently including tanks, fighter planes, and a submarine. He has increasingly clamped down on dissent, the opposition, and basic freedoms in Venezuela, as well as expropriating business concerns without compensation.

By systematically supporting his allies in other Latin America countries, from Bolivia and Argentina to Honduras and El Salvador, and including Peru, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Mexico's opposition, Chávez has polarised the entire Latin American continent in the same way that he has his own society. Moreover, he has implicated Venezuela in global conflicts half a world away, by allying himself with the Iranian regime and becoming one of its bulwarks.

In the face of all this, no one has yet attempted to stop Chávez. What's more, Uribe himself seems tempted to continue to search for compromises. Aside from protecting Colombian business interests, he seeks to amend his Colombia's constitution so that he can run for a third term in office - exactly what Chávez has done in Venezuela, and what his allies in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina (indirectly), and Nicaragua have all sought.

Uribe may still back down, though he is leaving himself precious little wiggle room to decline reelection after all that his supporters have done to allow it. But he could also be searching for an accommodation with the US that might finally lead to containing Chávez.

Most Colombians would like the immensely popular Uribe to stay in office for another four years. But many abroad would not, either because his second reelection would undercut arguments against others intent on perpetuating themselves in power, or because it would complicate their relations with Colombia.

US President Barack Obama finds himself in both of these categories. He cannot criticise Chávez's eternal presidency without hitting Uribe; and it will prove almost impossible for Obama to win congressional renewal of Plan Colombia, the drug-enforcement and counter-insurgency programme launched by Bill Clinton in 1999, let alone ratification of Colombia's free-trade agreement with the US, if Uribe can be portrayed by American critics as a perpetual violator of human rights intent on remaining in power indefinitely.

It would not be easy for Uribe to resist a direct appeal from Obama to step down after two terms. For that reason, there might be a basis for a deal: Uribe offers not to run again if Obama begins to confront Chávez the way he should be opposed: diplomatically, politically, ideologically, and in the court of world opinion and international law. Only with active US backing can Colombia take its case to the Organisation of American States (where it would currently lose), to the United Nations (where it might win), and to friends and allies in Europe and Asia (where it would undoubtedly have the upper hand).

The case against Chávez is solid if it is properly presented - as a series of repeated violations of domestic, regional, and international commitments and covenants signed and ratified by Venezuela. Whether these violations involve shutting down TV stations, imprisoning and exiling opponents, arming guerrillas in neighbouring countries, provoking an arms race in the region, or flirting with Iran's nuclear enrichment programme, they all can be proved and denounced.

If Colombia and Obama proceed in this fashion, their potential allies in the rest of the hemisphere might lose their fears about being left hanging out to dry. Countries like Mexico, Peru, Chile after its December election, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic all worry that if they confront Chávez, they will not only, in certain cases, lose his largesse, but also provoke him into meddling in their domestic politics. But if Obama shows that he takes the issue seriously and intends to pursue a policy of containment, these nations would probably respond favourably.

Letting matters drift towards greater confrontation is not a sustainable policy for Colombia, the US, or the rest of Latin America. Such a course would allow Venezuela to choose the next conflict, postponing a showdown until deteriorating circumstances make conflict both inevitable and more dangerous. It is now time for Obama to emulate Colombia's business community and stop turning the other cheek.

The writer, former foreign minister of Mexico (2000-2003), is a global distinguished professor of politics and Latin American Studies at New York University.

© Project Syndicate, 2009

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