Throughout the last decade it has become clear that Venezuela under Hugo Chávez is Colombia’s greatest national security threat. The FARC, the remaining paramilitary groups, and drug lords are all second on the list. And this past week, that threat became even more dangerous.
In a trip to Russia, President Chávez closed a deal with the government of that country for the purchase of weaponry and war material worth over US$2 billion. In that typical tone of his, full of ugly plebeianism, the Venezuelan president boasted that he had bought some “little rockets … that do not miss” their targets. Chavez’s new Russian rockets have a range of 300 kilometers, meaning that Colombian cities such as Valledupar, Bucaramanga, Barrancabermeja, Riohacha and Santa Marta could be prone to an attack with those rockets if they are fired from the Venezuelan border.
If that is not worrying enough, think that this is not the first time that Hugo Chavez has gone shopping in Moscow. Between 2005 and 2007, President Chavez spent about 4.4 billion dollars in Russian guns, making him Latin America’s largest weapons buyer. Venezuela today counts with 24 Sukhoi-30 fighter jets, which can be counted amongst the best military aircraft out there. If sent from their bases in Venezuela, those airplanes could be flying over Bogota or any other large Colombian city in about thirty minutes, as Mr. Chávez has reminded us a few times.
The autocrat from Caracas has also received from Russia 53 helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles. This time, Mr. Chávez made sure to include over 90 war tanks in his purchase order. In 2006 alone, Venezuela’s defense spending increased 35 percent, and in 2007 Mr. Chávez’s government spent almost as much money buying new guns than the governments of Iran and Pakistan combined. In the meantime, President Chávez has been having fun by inviting Russian nuclear ships to joint military exercises in Venezuelan waters.
Of course, President Chávez maintains that all those weapons he is acquiring are for defense purposes only. Venezuela, he says, is improving its ability to react to an attack, presumably, from American troops based in Colombian territory. I seriously doubt that the United States wishes to invade Venezuela, let alone do so from the seven military bases it is leasing from Colombia. The Obama administration has not quite figured out how to solve the situation in Afghanistan and the country is tired of military adventures overseas. In the next, say, three to six years I think most people would agree that an attack on Venezuela is very unlikely to occur. The real problem, even if one wanted to believe in President Chávez’s good intentions, is that much of the weaponry Venezuela has bought can serve both defensive and offensive purposes in war. Furthermore, the precedent of the Venezuelan leader’s fiery rhetoric about a conflict with Colombia, and the fact that he has sent tanks to the border in the past, must make the Colombian government and its military very uncomfortable.
Yet, Colombia does not have the weaponry that can match the technology that Venezuela has acquired. The balance of power between the two states has been shifting in favor of the Venezuelans for a while now, and budget constraints prevent the Colombian government from doing much about it. Although the Colombian Armed Forces are considerably larger and better trained, our Air Force would be a weak opponent against the Venezuelan Sukhoi and F-16 jets –even if we use those Kafirs we bought from Israel. Also, it is no secret that Colombia’s military is much better equipped for fighting an internal war than an external one. And the crux of the issue is that even if the Colombian government slowly continues to weaken FARC, the possibility of a war with Venezuela cannot be ruled out. I do not want to sound unnecessarily alarmist or pessimistic, but I dare any sane person to trust Hugo Chavez with a bunch of guns and be fine with it.
Colombia must prepare for any eventuality. As Margaret Thatcher wrote once, we need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. In an ideal world, the Colombian government should get from the United States a firm, clear compromise that it will come in Colombia’s defense in case of conflict with Venezuela, similarly to what happens with South Korea and Taiwan. But Colombia is neither South Korea, nor Taiwan.
In a hypothetical war against her bellicose, pseudo-communist neighbor, Colombia will have to stand her ground on her own. And that means that the Colombian government must continue upgrading the hardware of its military, and slowly start shifting the focus of its strategy from one of homeland security to one of national defense against other states. Accordingly, it would be appropriate to establish as a convention that annual defense spending never should be lower than 4% of GDP.
While this Cold War with Venezuela lasts, Colombia must remain alert. Remember that President Chávez will stay in office at least until 2013, and that now he has the possibility of endless consecutive reelections. There can be no attempts to appease a dictator in the making, or to give in to any of his bully tactics. Power must be checked with power. And the defense of the people, being, the most important duty of the Colombian state is something that must take priority over all other considerations.
President Uribe taught Colombians how important it is to defend the homeland from those who want to harm it from within. The time has come for Colombia to strengthen itself against those who wish to attack her from without.