Last Wednesday, at around 9.30 in the morning, a military helicopter from Venezuela entered Colombian airspace. For about 20 minutes, the Venezuelans flew over the city of Arauca and a Colombian military compound. The helicopter later returned to Venezuelan territory.
This violation of Colombian airspace by a military aircraft of a foreign power was read differently in different quarters. Immediately after the episode, the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a communiqué describing and condemning the incident. The Ministry sent a formal note of protest to the Venezuelan government, demanding an explanation.
The response from the Chavez autocracy came swiftly, and as expected. Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver turned Venezuelan foreign affairs minister, presented the incident as nothing but a fabrication of the Colombian government. “In Colombia that information has been used [for the purpose of launching] a dirty, brutal campaign of hatred against the people of Venezuela and the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, to incite feelings of contempt against our country” Mr. Maduro said.
Of course, nobody really believes Mr. Maduro’s baloney. After all, his job requires him to be a professional liar who shows no regard for the truth when he appears on TV. On his side, Gabriel Silva, the Colombian defense minister, delivered his own opinion on the incident, saying it was “not an accidental violation” of Colombian airspace. From Davos, Switzerland, where he was attending the World Economic Forum, President Alvaro Uribe quickly corrected Mr. Silva’s position: “The Colombian government has interpreted [the incident] as an error and we don’t want to think otherwise.”
To cut a long story short, the helicopter entered Colombia and then left, the foreign minister condemns the incident, the Venezuelans deny it, the minister of defense says it was a deliberate action, and the president calls it a mistake. Please, can we find something on which there is some agreement? In fact, we can. Everyone agrees that the Colombian armed forces never responded in any manner whatsoever to the incursion by the Venezuelan helicopter (even Mr. Maduro, who by denying the whole thing leaves out any possibility of a Colombian response).
The Colombian government’s position is that caution advised against any immediate response to the violation of airspace. In its communiqué after the incident, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared: “Assuming a prudent attitude, the Colombian Armed Forces did not react to this unacceptable event.” In his statement, Mr. Silva said that the Colombian military “kept maximum calmness (serenity) in order to prevent [the incident] from becoming a provocation.”
Really? I am confused by these declarations from the Colombian government. A military aircraft from a foreign and potentially hostile power enters Colombian airspace without permission, stays there for 20 full minutes, flies over the capital of a Colombian department and over a military base, and the armed forces do nothing? And that is somehow equivalent to “prudence”? Of course, I am not saying that the Colombian military should have shot down the Venezuelan helicopter (my idiocy does not go that far), but there are protocols that ought to be followed when airspace violations occur.
I found myself agreeing with Senator Gustavo Petro (of all people!) on this, when he said that the Colombian air force “should have put airplanes in our airspace and established communications with the aircraft, in order to make it land or escort it towards Venezuelan territory.” He is right. That is the sort of response I would have expected from the Colombian military, and that (or worse), is the way Venezuela would react if a Colombian helicopter invaded their airspace.
By doing nothing, the Colombian military have set a terrible precedent. Even if the Venezuelan helicopter entered the country by mistake (and I doubt it), the Colombian reaction tells the Chavez autocracy that future similar actions will go unpunished. If Colombia wants to prevent a war with Venezuela (which is definitely within the realm of possibility), if Bogota wants to deter Caracas from attacking, the Uribe administration needs to show strength and resolve. That, unfortunately, was lacking on Wednesday. Furthermore, the government should for once get its act together. Every time the president and his ministers say different things, it gives the image of improvised, disorganized policymaking.
As Mr. Petro said via Twitter, “one must act prudently, but one must act”. With the helicopter incident, the Colombian government shows it is confusing prudence with passivity and inaction, a terrible mistake in international relations. It is true that Colombia must avoid falling for Chavez’s many provocations, but at some point Colombia will have to start flexing its muscles. Regardless of the intentions of the pilots of that helicopter, or of the people who sent them to Colombia (some could think Chavez did it in order to move attention away from the many problems he faced at home last week), airspace sovereignty is not negotiable. I hope the government knows better the next time this happens – and trust me, there will be a next time.