Admit it. You weren’t paying any attention at all to South America. Well, maybe you’d better start, because a three-way shooting war looks like it’s about to get started there.
Here’s the deal. Columbia’s President, Juan Uribe, is considered a “right wing” leader, and has warmed ties with the United States. American troops and agents have been active in Columbia for years, with the collaboration of the Columbian government, quietly going after narcoterrorists (defined as military or paramilitary groups that fund themselves through “taxing” or sponsoring the trade in cocaine, Columbia’s most lucrative export after coffee).
This, by the way, is what we want to be done with narcoterrorists. Until this country wises up and decriminalizes drugs, cocaine will always be expensive to get and available only through criminal sources. So that leaves us with the only politically palatable alternative of interdiction as a way of fighting the drug trade — which has the sad effect of ensuring that only the most clever and strong criminals are the ones involved in the manufacture, transport, and sale of the stuff, meaning that that Pablo Escobars of the world have been edged out by military groups. Groups that had their origins in the Cold War, and which survived their loss of Soviet sponsorship by edging out the Mafia-style thugs who formerly controlled the cocaine trade.
In the case of Columbia, the left-wing terrorists who fund themselves with American and European drug money have been waging a civil war to overthrow the government of Columbia for close to forty years now. Sure, you know that right-wing governments in Latin America can be pretty nasty. So can left-wing governments. Not to excuse the bloody excesses of governments the U.S. cozied up to like in El Salvador, Panama, and Chile, but there have been at least as bad things happening in places run by left-wing dictators, like Nicaragua and Cuba. Only through discarding both right-wing militarism (if not outright fascism) and also left-wing communistic ideologies, and then adopting pro-business liberal democracy have these countries been able to enjoy financial success — witness, for example, Brazil, Costa Rica, and post-fascist Argentina.
But I digress. Columbia is bordered by five neighbors — Panama, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, and Ecuador. Ecuador and Venezuela are governed by leftist leaders who are pushing towards reforming their governments to be more autocratic. Ecuador’s last three democratically elected Presidents were all driven from office by popular protests. Before that, there was functionally a military government during a five-year border war with Peru. Venezuela, formerly a close ally of the United States, has fallen under the sway of Hugo Chavez, who has staked his political fortune on being a gadfly to the United States. Unlike their neighbor in common Columbia, Ecuador and Venezuela both have significant petroleum reserves, which form the basis of their economies.
And because their governments are leftist, they would prefer to see Columbia governed by leftists, also. Alas, the Columbian voters continue to return right-wing coalitions to power there, in no small part because they are sick and tired already of leftist terrorists blowing up their cafes, bus stations and city halls. They like that their government is doing what it can to root out and eliminate these criminals. Very recently, six Columbians were taken hostage by the bad guys — including a retired member of Columbia’s Senate. In 2002. And they’re still holding these people captive today.
So the Columbians (likely with our assistance) located a master cell of the terrorist group. Just across the border in Ecuador. And without a by-your-leave, a Columbian strike force (probably assisted by the U.S.) raided the place, killed a bunch of bad guys, and took a bunch more prisoner. This included taking out two of their top guys and seizing a bunch of their computers. And what did they find?
Well, it’s been an open secret for a long time that Chavez allows the Columbian rebels to operate within his country. Venezuela has a strong enough military that Columbia treads carefully around its border. And Chavez feels an ideological affinity for his fellow leftists. So it’s not a great leap to think that coca harvested and possibly refined in Columbia is sent through Venezuela for distribution to points abroad in order to fund the military operations against the government of Columbia. But no one expected to learn that Chavez was actually funding the rebels. However, that’s what e-mails found on the rebels’ computers said, mentioning, inter alia, a recent three hundred million dollar gift from Venezuela to them. Or suggestions that Chavez had taken money back from them in the form of a substantial campaign contribution during the recent elections in Venezuela.
Why Columbia does not consider these things acts of war against it, with Venezuela cast as the aggressor, is anyone’s guess. My guess is that we are partially responsible for Columbia not going to war with Venezuela already as we have let the Columbians know that if they do that, we will withdraw our military support for their government. The reason for that, as I describe below, is that despite our distaste for Venezuela’s current government, we cannot afford to see the Venezuelan oil stop flowing.
The response of both Ecuador and Venezuela to the Columbian raid has been outrage, including the termination of direct diplomatic relations between these nations. They have withdrawn their ambassadors, Chavez has said that if it had been Venezuela he’s have declared war on the spot, and everyone is flying to Washington so the Brazilians — debatably the only sane ones in the mix — can preside over an OAS mediation of the situation tomorrow. As it stands, three nations — including an OPEC member and a strategic ally of the U.S. that we’ve propped up for a generation — are on the brink of a shooting war into which the U.S. can do little but offer intelligence and munitions support.
Oh, and did I mention that the Columbian rebels tried to buy a hundred pounds of uranium? Hah hah! I almost let that little detail slip. Silly me — after all, this could have easily become not just a shooting war but a nuclear war. Now that would be something to put in the scrapbook for the ol’ grandkids!
We’ve had our eye focused so closely on the Persian Gulf for the past five years that we haven’t been paying a lot of attention elsewhere. This is what happens. First, it seemed that we wouldn’t be able to contain North Korea; fortunately, that turns out to (barely) be within our abilities thanks to the confluence of China’s need for peace and prosperity in the Korean Peninsula dovetailing with our own and Russia’s desire to not see Vladivostok turned into a smoking ruin by Lil’ Kim.
But we don’t have friends like that in Latin America. We’ve spent the better part of two centuries telling the rest of the world to keep their damn hands out of the Americas, and pretty much only the Soviets (and before them the French) have been able to get away with ignoring us (and the UK, at least ever since we kissed and made up with them in the 1850’s). We’re going to have to figure this one out on our own; Brazil and Argentina and Chile are rich and have substantial militaries but not substantial enough to project their power into the Crown of the Andes. About the only substantial ally we have south of our own border is Mexico. And if we wouldn’t take Mexico’s help when our own people were dying in New Orleans, it seems like a hard sell to get them on board with cleaning up this mess.
We can’t just wash our hands of it all and leave these various nations to their own devices. A glut of cocaine is what would result from that. We need an alliance with Columbia if we’re going to keep our current drug policy in place. Disrupting the economies of two oil exporting states is also not an option, even if their leaders are overtly hostile to us. We need as much oil as possible going into the world market, whether that means cozying up to Hugo Chavez or not. Allowing this war to happen is not an option. Deterring it is not within our power. We’d better hope that we, and the Brazilians, have some damn good diplomats.