President Luis Inacio Lula of Brazil wants Colombians and Venezuelans to start trusting each other again. That is no easy task, even for the Giant of South America. This week tensions have escalated between Venezuela and Colombia, with President Hugo Chavez outright closing the border for hours and sending 15,000 soldiers to the area. The murders of a group of Colombian soccer players and of two Venezuelan soldiers, as well as mutual accusations of espionage have added heat to the situation. For the nth time, President Chavez used his TV show Alo Presidente to tell Venezuelans that they should get ready for war with Colombia. “Let us not waste one day in our main mission: to prepare for war and to help the people prepare for war, because it is the responsibility of all”, were Mr. Chavez’s words on Sunday. Bogota responded by saying that they would take Venezuela’s threats to the Organization of American States and the UN Security Council.
Enter President Lula. Genuinely concerned that a war could erupt between two of his neighbors, the Brazilian head of state has given clear signals that he is willing to mediate. According to Mr. Lula, an upcoming summit in the Brazilian city of Manaus for countries that share the Amazon forest, would be the perfect opportunity for Presidents Uribe and Chavez to sit down and talk. President Lula is respected by both presidents, and he has been successful in the past acting as mediator in rows between Colombia and Venezuela. Perhaps Mr. Lula’s charm and the fact that he presides over Latin America’s largest nation, as well as an emerging power in its own right, can finally lower the tension across the border.
President Lula seems to have great faith in the possibility that Messrs. Chavez and Uribe will come to an understanding. The Brazilian president has talked of the “complementarity” and the “interdependency” of the economies of Colombia and Venezuela, of how they need one another. It certainly would be foolish to continue with this tension. “How do you stop people along the border trading?” Lula asked during a presentation he had with the Financial Times editors this week.
Mr. Lula, that is a question to which President Chavez has already answered. Loud and clear. Perhaps I haven’t been paying enough attention, but as far as I know this year has seen nothing but steep reductions in trade between Colombia and Venezuela. The complementarity is fading; the interdependency is dying. According to DIAN, Colombia’s tax authority, exports to Venezuela this year went down 26% in August, 46% in September, and 77% (!) in October when compared to the same months of 2008. This week also saw riots between the Venezuelan National Guard and Colombian local traders who have been affected by restrictions on commerce across the border. So, how do you stop people along the border trading, Mr. Lula? Simple: by stopping them, just like President Chavez has done.
Hugo Chavez has made it clear that he is willing to sever commercial ties with Colombia. He stopped buying our cars, our food, our textiles, and our livestock. Whatever Venezuela has imported from Colombia, they have virtually not paid for –the restrictions on foreign exchange make this almost impossible. Unsurprisingly, the Venezuelan government has started an active campaign to start buying elsewhere what they get from Colombia. Of course, Mr. Chavez knows this is idiotic. No other country can provide Venezuela with the products it needs in large quantities, a timely fashion, or at lower prices. But Mr. Chavez does not care. He would gladly kill his country’s economy if that means stopping trade with Colombians, those pawns of the empire.
Since when are we expected to believe that there is a thread of economic sensibleness in the head of Hugo Chavez? Why are we supposed to believe that President Chavez is a rational decision maker who would prefer peaceful trade and coexistence with the neighbor he regards as the 51st state in the American Union? Have we forgotten that he hates capitalism (and commerce, by extension) with every ounce of his body and soul, that his deepest desire is to transform Venezuela into an autarkic nation that feeds itself and sustains itself on its own? Really, I cannot be the only one who sees that the Venezuelan President couldn’t care less about trade with Colombia. That is simply not a factor in his war calculations, and it will certainly not deter him from attacking. Please let us all stop pretending otherwise.
For President Chavez, the current row with his neighbor is exclusively about the base deal that the Colombians signed with the Americans. That is an abomination he cannot tolerate, and I believe he is willing to go to war over it. His actions and his rhetoric certainly do not show any signals to the contrary, and it would be dangerous to believe that it is all a bluff that can be ignored. Moreover, the Colombian government will not back down in its deal with the United States. The agreement is already a fait accompli, and Mr. Chavez is fuming over it.
Yet, Mr. Lula remains convinced that he can sit Presidents Chavez and Uribe next to each other and make them talk –just like two small children. Mr. Lula has too much faith in the moribund trade between their two countries. He also has too much faith in a proposal of having Brazilian forces and intelligence agencies monitor the border between Colombia and Venezuela, in order to control crime and facilitate information to both countries. But that will not do: Mr. Chavez wants nothing short of a change in the terms or an outright annulment of the US-Colombia agreement, and President Uribe will not give that to him.
So do not expect Lulaplomacy to work wonders. I would be surprised if it did. And even in that case, any solution to today’s row between Caracas and Bogota will be nothing but a truce, and the tension will appear again. The story of Presidents Chavez and Uribe has been one of a long conflict with some interludes of fake love and hypocrisy. The two presidents distrust each other with extreme intensity, and this time the situation has taken new turns that we had not seen before. We are running out of the trade-will-prevent-conflict excuse and war is definitely not outside the realm of possibility. If Mr. Lula wants to change that fact he will need all of his diplomatic power. Alas, I doubt he has enough of it.