Tensions are rising on the northeastern plains of South America. The war of words between Presidents Chavez and Uribe are bringing Venezuela and Colombia closer to confrontation. Although the probability of a conflict remains small, it is no longer zero. The recent rearmament of the two countries and the heavy use of nationalism by their respective leaders put them on a collision course. An unexpected visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Medellin, while President Uribe was in Europe, was an open signal of commitment. Unfortunately, a conflict between these two countries would be an unexpected turn of events for a region that is known for its solidarity.
Colombia and Venezuela rearmed themselves during the past decade. The Colombian program started first, with the launch of Plan Colombia. The U.S.-led initiative helped the military renew its offensive against the guerillas by modernizing its transportation and communications equipment. Plan Colombia provided new helicopters and riverine craft to penetrate deep into the jungle, where the guerillas hid their encampments. The bulk of the new equipment was for domestic use, with limited applicability against foreign aggression. In a way, this left Colombia at a disadvantage. Although Colombian forces are battle-hardened, its national defense equipment is antiquated. The Colombian air force has less than two dozen aging Kfirs and Mirage 5’s to provide air defense. The rest of the air force mainly consists of propeller-driven ground-support airplanes. Meanwhile, the situation in Venezuela is the opposite.
Venezuela’s military has not fired a shot in anger since the attempted coup of 2002. However, the subsequent oil boom and tensions with Colombia inspired the national leadership to rearm itself. In 2005, the Venezuelan air force bought 24 frontline SU-30s. The state of the art Russian jet is designed to establish air superiority through a variety of roles and functions. The Venezuelans already took delivery of the first 14 aircraft, with another 10 scheduled to be delivered this year. The SU-30, in combination with existing F-16s and F-5s, would wreak havoc with the Colombian air force and offset the military’s lack of battle experience. The Venezuelans would also have another tactical advantage. The FARC could act as a fifth column during the offensive process, destabilizing the country and forcing the military to deploy units away from the front.
A military conflict between Venezuela and Colombia would be a setback for the region, and it could produce deep schisms. President Chavez may not command much respect on the international stage, but he has many favors to collect across Latin America. This means that some of the governments may give him the benefit of the doubt, despite the fact that he appears to be the aggressor. This could also help galvanize the region’s opposition to U.S. intervention. President Chavez claims that the governments of Argentina and Brazil already expressed concerns about an escalation of the conflict.
Unfortunately, the seeds of this conflict do not lie with national interests. Venezuelans and Colombians are brothers, sharing a common history, language and traditions. However, the heavy use of patriotism by both presidents helped shore up sagging support. Their constant use of fear, nationalism and militarism helped them achieve their own personal ambitions. Sadly enough, this phenomenon is nothing new. Almost 250 years ago, the British lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson summed up the situation nicely when he wrote, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”—a quality that is all too familiar in power politics.