Monday, March 10, 2008

Winners and losers 

By now I am sure that everyone knows how the "conflict" between Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia turned out. After a week of threats, breaking of diplomatic relations, troop movements, and closing the border everything ended in hand shakes and hugs at the meeting of Latin American heads of state in the Dominican Republic. Borders are open, the troops who managed to make it to the border are presumabely on the way back to their bases, and Venezuelan diplomats are back in Bogota as diplomatic links are restored.

In a certain way this all turned out to be a like a cheap "novela" (Latin American soap opera) and I normally avoid going through the gossipy disection of who "won" and who "loss". But I think this case merrits at least some analysis of how the different actors faired.

First, the FARC clearly suffered a significant military blow. Losing one of your top leaders is never good and so this was clearly a military victory for the Colombian armed forces. Of course, it is one event and doesn't necessarily indicate what each sides fortunes will be going foward. Yet I am sure it was cause for celebration amongst the Colombian military and their gringo sponsors as well as mourning and analysis by the FARC (for starters it seems they may have been lulled into a fall sense of security that by being in Ecuador they would somehow be safe from attack and were a little too lax about staying in one place and letting outsiders know where that place was - they shouldn't make that mistake again).

So the Colombian government gloated and the FARC kept to itself as it licked its wounds. That is predictable.

The surprises and contraversy came from elsewhere. Ecuador itself reacted by sending troops to the border, cutting realations and demanding an apology. This too was to be expected. The real surprise came from Venezuela where the government also engaged in verbal fistacuffs with Colombia, sent troops to the border, and severed relations with Colombia.

Of course, the natural question is why did Venezuela do that - after all one could say they didn't have a dog in this fight. And that is true. Nevertheless, many people feel an affinity (or at least sympathy) for the FARC who are people whose political views have been savagely repressed by the brutal regime that rules Colombia. It is therefore to be expected that many people, including the Venezuelan government, may wish to give what assistance to the Colombian insurgency that they can.

That is all well and good but it leads to the next set of questions which is did Venezuela's actions really do anything to help the FARC?

I think the answer is clearly no. For example, what was the point of sending troops to the border? Colombia didn't seem to have any intention to invade Venezuela. Further, Venezuela didn't appear to ever have any REAL intention of starting a fight with Colombia. So the move seemed completely symbolic and even the symbolism seemed limited as the Colombians never seemed to take much note of it.

As to the closing the border and severing dimplomatic relations those could be more meaningful actions. For example, Colombia runs a large trade surplus with Venezuela and Venezuela is the second largest destination for Colombian exports after the U.S. So if the border had been closed permanently that would have been quite a blow to Colombia economy and definitely would have made them pay a price their cross border raid.

The severing of diplomatic relations is more symbolic but it is also a way to show the seriousness of the dispute.

The idea behind both of those actions is to make Colombia more hesitant to carry out a similar attack in the future. And if both actions were kept in place they would indeed possibly modify future Colombian actions.

However, as we know those actions have now been completely reversed. In effect Colombia has paid no price. They had a successful military action and suffered no ill effect for it beyond a couple of days of listening to heated rhetoric. They can still export all the goods to Venezuela they want and make huge profits off of the Venezuelan market. And to top it off they can still get cheap contraband Venezuelan gasoline and food stolen from Mercal. In other words Colombia emerges unscathed.

One could say Venezuela and Ecuador did too but that is not really the case. They both lose on two counts.

First, although they would probably like to be of assistance to those fighting against the Colombian regime in the end they did nothing to assist the FARC or deter attacks on it by the Colombian government.

If they really wanted to help the insurgency the way to do so would be to give it covert assistance - weapons, money, training, safe havens, etc. Venezuela and Ecuador may or may not be doing those things but the hystoronics of the past week didn't do anything to further that as rule number one of covert assistance is to keep it under wraps. The whole world might know you are doing it but it still isn't a good idea to draw any more attention to it then you have to and invite possible retaliation by others.

If anything the events of the past week undermined the ability of Venezuela and Ecuador to properly assist the FARC. Not good.

Second, after a week of big threats which all collapse into no action Chavez's and Correa's credibility isn't doing too well. It is a well known maxim in politics that making threats that you then don't carry out is self defeating and only helps your adversaries (maybe instead of reading Gramsci Chavez should read some Italian political thinkers from a little further back - say the 15th Century). Yet that is what Chavez and Correa did. It is now that much less likely that anyone will take any future statements of theirs seriously.

In Chavez's case this is consistent with how he has governed and it has not been helpful to say the least. For example, he routinely threatens to nationalize or expropriate certian companies but rarely does it. Whether actually nationaling them would help or not is highly debatable. But simply threatening to nationalize with out doing it is even worse as you get the negatives (scaring off potential investors from what is still mainly a market economy) without getting any positive benefits whatsoever.

For example, Chavez didn't actually nationalize any Colombian firms so the government has no more companies under its control than it did before. But he almost certainly did succeed in making it a lot less likely that Colombian investors will go anywhere near the Venezuelan economy. No positive there, just a negative.

This past week the Colombian government won a military engagement. Worse still, it won the aftermath as the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian responses were incoherent, improvised, and fell completely flat. They were responses that helped no-one, certainly not the FARC, and instead actually hurt both Venezuela and Ecuador and their ability to assist Colombians fighting for their political rights.

Chavez may fancy himself a political master due to his constant out manuevering of the Venezuelan opposition. But that doesn't count for much as the Venezuelan opposition is so inept almost anyone could whip them. In this situation where he finally faced a worthy adversary and needed to have a well thought out strategy Chavez came up woefully short. Uribe may be evil but he isn't stupid and this sort of improvization isn't going to work against him.

Chavez should either start to think these things through better or stay out of the international arena for a while. In fact, the latter is probably a really good idea. It isn't as if there aren't thing to tend to inside Venezuela.


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