On Sunday, March 2, Venezuelans were treated to a spectacle that was surreal even by the standards of this Andean nation. Speaking on his weekly television program Alo Presidente, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced the mobilization of ten army battalions to the Colombian border, and threatened to send the Venezuelan air force to directly attack Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
What made this announcement particularly bizarre is that it occurred in reaction to an incident more than 500 miles from Venezuela's borders, involving the entry by Colombia's armed forces into Ecuadorean territory in pursuit of a group of leftist guerrillas. Indeed, Venezuela's reaction was so disproportionate that it decided to suspend diplomatic relations with Colombia at the same time that Ecuador--the aggrieved country in this case--was taking the less drastic step of calling its ambassador home for consultations. Venezuela's strong reaction evidenced the increasingly public nature of its close relationship with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group which the Venezuelan government considers an ideological and strategic ally.
Although relations were restored one week later as part of a brokered agreement reached at the Rio Group Presidential Summit, it would be incorrect to interpret this incident as an isolated event. Rather, the dispute with Colombia forms part of a broader pattern that has emerged in the past year as characteristic of the most recent stage of the Bolivarian revolution. In this pattern, Chavez's aggressiveness must be understood as part of a consistent strategy to create external enemies that will allow him to rally support around his presidency. They are the expression of the political realities of eroding popular support and a collapsing political coalition.
Indeed, attempts to provoke external and internal enemies have by now become the order of the day in Venezuela. In response to growing food shortages, the government has threatened to expropriate the distribution companies that it blames for hoarding basic foodstuffs. In February, when a British court froze $12 billion in assets of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) in response to a demand filed by ExxonMobil, Chavez threatened to cut off oil supplies to the United States. (In contrast to previous threats, in which Chavez had spoken of cutting off supplies in response to an imagined U.S. intervention or invasion, in this case he promised to carry out the threat unless the asset freeze was lifted.) (1) And, though recent opinion surveys indicate that the Venezuelan opposition will likely emerge victorious from the regional elections due to be held later in the year, Chavez has announced that if his party loses these elections "there will be war." (22)
The Search for Foreign Enemies
Coming shortly after the December 2, 2007, referendum defeat of Chavez's proposal to rewrite the Constitution in order to eliminate term limits, significantly increase executive power, and pave the way for the construction of a socialist economy, these moves may appear to be the desperate attempts of a strongman losing his grip on power. On the other...