President Hugo Chávez’s decision to send tank battalions to the Colombian border, mobilise his air force and close the Venezuelan embassy in Bogotá looks like – and probably is – sabre-rattling. Yet the danger that tensions between Colombia and Venezuela could erupt into open conflict is increasing, in part because of Mr Chávez’s increasingly explicit sympathy for the left-wing Colombian guerrillas of the Farc.
This latest conflict was prompted by Ecuadorian protests at a Colombian military incursion into its territory on Saturday that led to the death of Raúl Reyes, the Farc number two and a man who was widely tipped to take over leadership of the left-wing guerrilla organisation. Mr Chávez has initially warned Mr Uribe not to repeat the exercise in Venezuelan territory but on Sunday said that his country stood ready to support Ecuador come what may. However, those orders – which apparently upped the stakes – were issued on Aló Presidente, the weekly TV show in which Mr Chávez has a habit of being provocative and tends to play to the gallery.
Meanwhile, back in Venezuela Mr Chávez is looking increasingly shaky. He may have won a few points on the international stage through successfully mediating the release of four more hostages held by the Farc in jungle camps, but at home the government is hobbled by rising inflation and shortages. Indeed, Mr Chávez’s popularity is declining and as the Venezuelan leader prepares for what could be significant regional elections later this year his supporters are squabbling.
If Chavez is looking to go to war in an effort to boost his popularity, I hope he remembers the lessons of the Argentines in the Falklands
when the generals went to war with the UK in order to distract the population from their declining popularity. The junta fell shortly thereafter.