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FOREIGN EXCHANGE

The threat behind Chavez's bluster

November 18, 2009|Chris Kraul | Kraul is a special correspondent.

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Reacting to a deal that gives the Pentagon use of seven bases in Colombia for flights to combat drug trafficking and insurgency, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said this month that his country should prepare for war with its neighbor. It was only the latest belligerent statement directed at his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe.

Should Chavez be taken seriously? Yes, says Maruja Tarre, former international relations professor with a degree from Harvard Kennedy School and now a Caracas-based consultant to multinational firms.

With his revolution losing popularity amid rising inflation, rampant crime, a stagnant economy, and frequent water shortages and power outages, Chavez needs a galvanizing event, she says. A border skirmish, if not a full-fledged war, would solidify his support base ahead of next year's legislative elections and give his Bolivarian Revolution the heroic episode that it lacks.

Tarre was interviewed Tuesday at her home in Caracas.

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Verbal assaults by Chavez are nothing new. People usually react by saying it's all talk. Should his threats be taken any more seriously this time?

There have always been problems with Colombia owing to our long and dangerous shared border. But problems in the past were related to marine territorial limits, which have never been clear.

But that issue that existed for decades, and involves oil, has disappeared under Chavez. Now the conflict is ideological, and the two leaders are more antagonistic than ever in personality and the vision they have for their countries and Latin America. The antagonism began when Chavez said Venezuela is neutral in the war between the Colombian government and the guerrillas. That's a new position, because Venezuela has always supported the government.

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That's Colombia's argument. What is Chavez's excuse for being upset?

Undoubtedly it's the increased U.S. military presence in Colombia, and Chavez has good reason to be nervous. Up to now he has had carte blanche in Latin America to do what he wanted, including help for the Colombian guerrillas, and people seemed to look the other way. So with the vigilance and advanced technology at these bases, it won't be so easy for Chavez. Opposition Gov. Cesar Perez of the [Venezuelan] border state of Tachira has said Colombian guerrillas have camps in his state, that Chavez does nothing, but no one could document it. Now it will be easier to document. This is why Chavez is nervous. They are going to monitor him more.

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So you don't accept the Americans' version, that they are merely transferring to Colombia the anti-drug and anti-terrorism flights that were in Manta, Ecuador?

I'm no military expert, but I imagine the bases will offer advanced monitoring technology and that they will use it to keep closer vigilance of Chavez. I think it's intelligent policy on the part of [President] Obama.

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He'd welcome a border incident?

Such an event would justify him getting rid of two opposition border governors [Perez and Pablo Perez of Zulia state] by allowing him to appoint some military governor over them. Chavez is already isolating Tachira and Zulia by claiming the two states are traitors and want to secede from Venezuela. He did the same thing with opposition mayors, taking their budgets, police, offices and powers and naming someone above them.

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Has the U.S. been clumsy as some have charged in its unveiling of the base agreement?

I don't think so. Obama is not interested in Latin America and in some way he's looking for an ally, a proxy who could substitute for him. His first choice was Brazil, but Lula [Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] has at times defended Chavez, for mostly economic reasons. All the big public works in Venezuela, the Caracas metro, the Orinoco bridge, are being built by Brazilians. Mexico was another option, but it has too many problems with violence and drugs, and Mexico has always never injected itself in the affairs of others, a very intelligent approach. So who is left? Colombia, which is anxious to have a free-trade agreement with the U.S., and so here you have a lot of quid pro quo. For the use of the bases, Obama will make the case for a free-trade deal.

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But what about the new attitude in Latin America, of not wanting to be treated as the U.S.' backyard. Doesn't Chavez's resonance derive from that?

Chavez touches a sensitive chord in Latin America. His charisma, his anti-American rhetoric and his petrodollars explain a large part of the success he has had in obtaining satellites, if you will, in Bolivia, Nicaragua and to a certain extent in Ecuador. This anti-American sentiment has always existed here. But until what point will this continue when Chavez can no longer throw money around with his rhetoric?

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Does this fight matter to the region?

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