A New Dance--South American Proxy Wars
Colombia, a United States satellite and illicit drug source since the Polk Administration (1845-49), invaded Ecuador to kill some harbored FARC leaders; what at first blush seems a routine violation of a weak nation's sovereignty is on deeper reflection more serious. A domino's track of consequences is likely to tip, the most immediate of which is that Ecuador and Venezuela have withdrawn their ambassadors, and Hugo Chavez just ordered Venezuela's armored forces to the Colombian border. These actions must be considered a challenge to a long-established sphere of northern influence.
The background of US-Colombia relations may be obscured or even hidden from most Americans, but US interventionism has been a direct, violent, and frequent feature of Colombian life for over 150 years. Polk signed a treaty with Colombia in 1846 to control access to the railway across the narrow isthmus separating the Atlantic and Pacific, preparing for the vision of a trans-oceanic canal. And before 1900, US troops were called in to crush native rebellions six times.
In 1903, the Hay-Herran Treaty granted the United States renewable 99-year leases to a promising swath of land in return for $10 million plus a yearly stipend. The amount was considered insultingly small and Colombian senators refused to ratify the treaty, so US commercial interests found it expedient to support a rebellion in a region of Colombia known as Panama. The region broke away as a protectorate under the New Panama Canal Company, becoming a de facto US territory and a tremendous strategic asset. Goods and vessels of any offending nation could be barred passage through the portage, and eventually the Canal. The only alternative was the long journey around Cape Horn, a squally, ice-berg ridden graveyard with strong winds, currents, and notorious 100-foot high rogue waves dreaded by mariners to this day. As Panama's right-hand anchor, controlling Colombia has been a steady necessity.
Successfully upholding pro-US policies contrary to the interests of Colombia's majority, dictatorships have been beset by its by-products: chronic government weakness, a steeply stratified society, cartel combinations, violence, a golden parachute mindset amongst elites, popular resistance, kidnapping, and persistent forms of organized rebellion. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) is a usual enemy of Colombia's para-military dictators, President Uribe a latest incarnation. Roughly 40 years old, FARC is a somewhat anachronistic Marxist-Leninist guerilla organization with upwards of 10,000 troops, and it was their international spokesman Raul Reyes and a reported 14 others who were killed yesterday in Ecuador.
In the past 7 years, the situation in South America has changed dramatically, to the extent that merely breaking the FARC will not tilt the balance in North America's favor. In 2001, the Bush Administration consciously shelved plans to nip a budding Hugo Chavez in favor of focusing on greater Iraq's transformation. The intervening time has allowed the ghost of Simon Bolivar to haunt. Ecuador elected its first native President, a government which naturally favored the FARC and its sentiments, Chavez has been piling up abundant oil revenues and parceling out anti-imperialist favors across the region in which China is replacing an ejected Exxon, and undersea oil has been discovered just north of Cuba. Chavez has bought Russian arms, munitions, training, and the world's best fighter jets.
Chavez is a man with an exquisite sense of the hour, a master of anti-imperialist positioning, and his timing is impeccable. Now, in the twilight of a distracted and frustrated BushCo, a retrograde threat of retaliation, and the coming regime change in the US, he knows it's an excellent time to up ante. His tanks will probably not cross the border into Colombia, but he can credibly claim active US aggression, real or imagined, and Venezuela is the closest and biggest foreign supplier of oil to North America. If he shuts off the spigot, anyone else in the world will pay the same (rather higher), and the resulting temporary supply disruption would serve his domestic and foreign diplomatic needs nicely.
Any incoming Administration would have to negotiate with Chavez, validating his approach and giving leverage to Simon Bolivar's pan-American agenda. Colombia's position is tenuous in terms of American support, low down on the priority list; Venezuela and Ecuador could probably embarrass it in a border war. That may not fully develop, but we should expect a Venezuelan oil embargo, its price going to $125 per barrel in May or June.