A few months ago, the commander of the Venezuelan Army, Raul Baduel, described something that worried him (1). Colombia had just purchased 46 AMX-30 battle tanks from Spain. The media claimed the tanks were to fight drug trafficking, but that hardly seemed plausible. Baduel suspected that the tanks were going to end up on the Venezuelan border.
This deployment was blandly reported in El Tiempo, Colombia's national newspaper, yesterday (2). The 46 tanks will be part of a new Brigade, especially created, to 'patrol the border'. Four battalions and a Special Forces group form this new Brigade. The tanks are supposed to arrive in (and watch the timing carefully, for we will revisit it) August.
The El Tiempo article refers to the need for the tanks in order to "defend Colombia" from an "eventual incursion from Venezuela". The Brigade is also charged with the defense of the Wayuu indigenous people, who have been victims of massacres by "illegal armed groups". Thus, the indigenous can rest secure under the protection of the very army that is killing them directly or working with the paramilitaries ("illegal armed groups" who happen to work with the army) who are killing them.
As for the tanks themselves, their location is unknown. The deal was signed between the current Colombian government and the Spanish government of Jose Maria Aznar, who made sure he sold the tanks before he lost the elections in March. But, an El Tiempo editorial in the same issue speculates, the Venezuelan government is pressuring Zapatero's new Spanish government to call off the deal. "The final answer will be given by the tanks," writes the Madrid correspondent for El Tiempo, Victor Manuel Vargas. "That is, if they are delivered or not."
That is a very good description of US foreign policy, in fact, in the region and elsewhere: The final answer will be given by the tanks.
It is not coincidental that the tanks for the Venezuelan border are arriving in August. The Venezuelan recall referendum, when Venezuelans will vote on whether or not to recall President Hugo Chavez, will take place on August 15. It will take place, that is, if the Venezuelan opposition thinks they can win. Since the Venezuelan opposition could not likely win a fair vote, it is more likely that the whole referendum exercise, like the coup attempt in April 2002 and the 'National Strike' (3) later that year and into 2003, is just another part of the destabilization campaign against the Chavez government. In March 2003, just after the 'National Strike' collapsed, Colombia's army raided across the Venezuelan border (4). Just in May of 2004, another plot involving Colombian paramilitaries was foiled by Venezuela, though the details have not fully emerged. According to an AFP report Venezuelan police are still finding caches of weapons and individuals linked to the plot. (5)
The Colombian military and paramilitary have always been an essential part of the destabilization campaign against Venezuela. The timing of the posting of the armoured Brigade to the Venezuelan border, coinciding with the Venezuelan referendum and coming just months after an attempted paramilitary infiltration, is not coincidental.
In the countryside, the Colombian army often fights as follows: paramilitaries infiltrate a community and attempt to draw a response from the guerrillas. In the rare cases where guerrillas respond, the paramilitaries back off and the army replaces them, attacking the guerrillas with heavy weapons.
This is also the ideal formula to create a border war: A paramilitary infiltration, which the Venezuelan Army would try to repel, whose defenses the Colombian Army's new heavy tanks, conveniently posted on 'border patrol', would be able to smash through once the initial 'incident' was set. This would then be presented as 'Venezuelan aggression', and no doubt the US papers would set to work writing about how Chavez started a war to prevent the referendum. The war could then quickly change from one between Colombia and Venezuela to one between the US and Venezuela. Perhaps a repeat of the 3,000 or so civilians killed in Panama's poorest neighbourhoods in 1989, along with a media campaign about 'saving' them, while showing happy rich Venezuelans applauding on television, could follow? (This is an imperfect analogy: Noriega actually was a dictator. Chavez is not.)
Should that happen, one of the recipients of applause will be Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe Velez.
-Colombia's President, who said to an audience of 150 junior officers at a military college in Bogota the other day "I don't worry about Amnesty International, who we will never be able to count on. I worry that the people be able to trust the soldiers of the fatherland, that the people be able to trust us. This I do worry about." (6)
-Colombia's President, who, having tried to get a constitutional amendment in October 2003 that would have allowed him to get re-elected by putting a referendum to the people who rejected it roundly, quietly had the amendment passed in the legislature (7).
-Colombia's President, who was the governor of Antioquia, a department where one of the worst massacres happened at a place called Mapiripan. The very day before Uribe told the soldiers he doesn't "worry about Amnesty International", a retired Colombian general, Jaime Umberto Uscategui Ramirez, described in great detail how the army and paramilitary coordinated to have several dozen paramilitaries transported to Mapiripan to conduct their slaughter. His description, reported in the pages of Colombia's National Newspaper, detailed how the authorities in Antioquia, part of Uribe's administration, knew about this planned massacre well before it occurred. (8)
Think for one second how the US media would react if any of these things were true about Venezuela's President. The worst thing the US media seem to be able find to accuse Chavez of is 'Pandering to the Poor' (9).
To be fair, between his privatizations, his labor 'reforms', and his assault on unionists, the public sector, and the poor in Colombia, no one could accuse Uribe of 'pandering to the poor'. Only of military aggression, paramilitary murder, anti-democratic political manipulation, and economic plunder - none of which are crimes, so long as they are done in the service of the right interests.
In August, Venezuelans are supposed to vote again to determine their future. There are many who think that the Venezuelan majority has spoken loudly and clearly already, and that this referendum is a sham. Sham or no, Chavez could easily win a fair referendum. The real danger is that if Uribe and the United States have their way, "The final answer" may be "given by the tanks."
2) El Tiempo, June 18, 2004, "Crean primera brigada de frontera en limite con Venezuela"
5) See my 'Terrorist Plot Foiled!' May 10, 2004
6) El Tiempo, June 18, 2004 "Presidente Álvaro Uribe ordena envío de comandantes militares a las regiones para que dirijan tropas."
7) El Tiempo, June 17, 2004 "Cámara de Representantes aprobó la reelección presidencial inmediata en cuarto debate."
8) El Tiempo, June 16, 2004, "Así llegaron los paramilitares a perpetrar la masacre de Mapiripán según el general Uscategui"
9) Take a look at Zeynep Toufe's blog for a dissection of the Washington Post article that deserves a place in the history of the destabilization campaign.