Chavez's Crumbling Bolivarian Rule

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The press conference on July 22 about an upcoming sports program started off fairly on topic. However, soon into it, Hugo Chavez decided the moment was ripe to announce his country was breaking off diplomatic relations with neighboring Colombia. The decision was in response to that country's expected complaint before the Organization of American States that rebel narco groups are taking refuge inside Venezuela.

Anybody who has paid attention to President Chavez's statements over the years should be familiar with his unique speaking style. His thoughts scatter over a plethora of topics that he then proceeds to unload in a stream-of-consciousness manner. But the recurrence went beyond matters of form. It was the fourth time, in less than three years, that President Chavez announced he was rupturing diplomatic relations with Colombia, and the second time he warned of outright war.

Which is to say, though it might be tempting to treat this outburst as just another hollow gesture, it would be a premature dismissal. This most recent display of umbrage could become a watershed in Chavez's history as a statesman.

To understand why, it's necessary to go back to events in March 2008. The Colombian government of now outgoing-President Alvaro Uribe, acting on intelligence procured by Minister of Defense (and now President-elect) Juan Manuel Santos that proved accurate, ordered its forces to engage insurgent militants in their territory's border with Ecuador. They ultimately ended up pursuing a high-ranking FARC member into that neighboring country in an action that resulted in his death.

President Chavez's reaction then was to announce the rupture of relations with Colombia and threaten hostile retaliations - the first and second times he did so per the count above. Yet his virulent indignation, at times louder than the one from Ecuador, resonated deeply. Country after country followed in condemning Colombia's actions. President Chavez succeeded in portraying the narrative as a case of an overzealous, and disproportionate, display of might by that country; so much so he almost turned Colombia into a pariah within the region. It was arguably the zenith of his regional leadership.

Meanwhile, the Colombian government learned an important lesson. If it wanted to pursue the fight to the border with Venezuela it needed a change of strategy. Refusing to follow diplomatic due process in Latin America, and ignoring foreign policy as a regional - as opposed to a national - construct, would prove too troublesome in the aftermath of any military action within Venezuelan territory.

So the intent became making sure the matter was viewed as a security issue and not a power play - especially not one directed against the Chavez government. Colombia would gather evidence, build a case and methodically roll out the arguments for a more secure border. In that sense, engaging Chavez through President-elect Santos' rapprochements, while taking their grievances to multi-lateral environments (like the Organization of American States), serve as two pieces of one approach as opposed to diverging policies. These tactics will continue until Colombia's security concerns are validated by a majority of the international, and especially South American, community. Only then will it move to decisively resolve the problem.

Now, it is difficult to ascertain conclusively at this time whether Hugo Chavez willingly harbors, or is knowingly or unknowingly oblivious about, insurgents taking refuge in Venezuela. What is more certain is that he has always viewed the situation as a geopolitical contest. By changing its strategy as described above, however, the Colombian government made Chavez's premise obsolete. When he announced that Venezuela would rupture relations with Colombia it was an important moment precisely because it was one more empty gesture.

So as it is, and before he realizes it, Chavez could be forced to either grudgingly allow Colombian or international forces to monitor Venezuela's borders, do it himself, accept a combination thereof or turn into an even worse pariah than the one he almost turned Colombia into more than two years ago. No matter what, it will be very hard to deny he was outplayed. So what, then, would be the aftermath of this likely debacle?

The common wisdom on Chavez would retort that he is a survivor, impossible to corner and pin down. But the problem with perpetuating power through a populist platform, like he has, is that all it takes is one bad election year to bring the whole structure down. To that, and leaving aside the matter of Colombia for a moment, consider just a few other troubles building up as his 2012 re-election bid approaches.

For one, Venezuela is facing economic havoc since Chavez's introduction of a dual exchange rate in January, and all the while he continues tapping the Central Bank for foreign reserves to fund pet projects. Add to that the country's $2.5 billion in likely debt maturing between August and April 2011. Although Venezuela will likely make payment, it will put a dent in the state's finances nonetheless.

Meanwhile, his stature as patron of the Bolivarian bloc in Latin America, a position that served to prop up his image abroad and by extension at home, is much eroded. It tumbled down precipitously following his failure to return former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, one of his close allies, to his old post. The episode turned into a stark reminder to his other partners of the lesson he has exemplified for many years: your own political survival ought to be priority number one, always.

Such factors by themselves would make it possible, albeit unlikely, that sooner than later President Chavez might face the very real prospect of being voted out of office. But the rub is that the issue with Colombia will materialize just in time to be the fulminating denouement in this series of unfortunate predicaments. In the heat of the election could he claim to be a master statesman when he so plainly misread the Colombian "threat"?

No. At that point, his followers and his allies will wish him the best and carry on.

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