Rodriguez: Chavez Using Attack on FARC to Bolster Diminishing Popularity

Francisco R. Rodriguez, an expert on Venezuelan affairs, says the show of force by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez after the Colombian incursion into Ecuador is an attempt to bolster his declining popularity at home.

March 6, 2008

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Francisco R. Rodriguez, chief economist for the Venezuelan National Assembly from 2000 to 2004, says the strong response by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to the Colombian incursion into Ecuador against FARC guerrillas, demonstrated the “very close alliance” between the FARC and Chavez’s government. Rodriguez says Chavez is also trying to shore up his declining popularity. He says Chavez “is resorting to the well-known political strategy which he has used in the past, of creating an external enemy to strengthen his regime. In particular, to the extent that he can blame that external enemy for the state of economy, well that’s even much more to his advantage because that means voters won’t be blaming him and his administration.”

You’ve just come back from a visit to Venezuela. Right after you left we had this incident in Ecuador where the Colombian armed forces attacked a guerrilla camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC].  That led Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an ally of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, to send forces to Venezuela’s borders with Colombia. What do you make of this?

There are a couple of factors behind this. One of them has become relatively clear and that is the very close alliance between the revolutionary FARC forces of Colombia and the Chavez administration. Now, Chavez had earlier said that his administration would be neutral in the Colombia conflict and offered to be a mediator. But in the past few months after the breakdown of the original negotiations for the release of hostages held by FARC that Venezuela was supposed to be mediating, Chavez has taken a much more openly pro-FARC or pro-guerilla position and also has taken a much more confrontational position towards the government of Colombia.

Furthermore, at the same time, a number of revelations, most strikingly the accusations of the Colombian government, based on the documents seized on a computer in the FARC camp inside Ecuador—including that the Venezuelan government has transferred $300 million to FARC—are indicative of a very close relationship, almost a military alliance, between Venezuela and FARC. Now that there has been an attack on FARC, Venezuela is showing it is clearly aligned with FARC and acting as an ally. The Colombian attack was a very hard blow to the FARC. Its second-in-command, Raul Reyes, was killed and nobody knows whether the first-in-command, Manuel Marulanda, is actually alive or not. FARC is very much under attack and it needs support. And Chavez is giving them support.

Are there domestic considerations in Venezuela to explain Chavez’s actions?

Chavez needs conflict to shore up internal support for his regime. The government has not recovered from its defeat in the referendum elections in December. All opinion surveys indicate that later this year, it’s going to lose regional elections, lose a large number of governorships to the opposition. Chavez’s popularity has been declining; the economy is developing inflation. So in this context, Chavez is resorting to the well-known political strategy which he has used in the past, of creating an external enemy to strengthen his regime. In particular, to the extent that he can blame that external enemy for the state of economy, well that’s even much more to his advantage because that means voters won’t be blaming him and his administration.

I take it that Venezuela’s relations with Ecuador are very close?

Apparently they are. It’s curious that Venezuela’s initial reaction to the Colombian attack on the rebels was stronger than that of Ecuador’s. That is really surprising because the attack occurred in Ecuadorian territory so if anyone should have had the strongest response, it should have been Ecuador. Soon after the attack occurred, the Ecuadorian government on Sunday decided to recall its ambassador. But at that same moment the Venezuelan government—even though there was absolutely no involvement of Venezuelan territory in the attack—decided to close down the Colombian embassy, a much harsher measure. I think that Chavez feels that he has to come very strongly to the defense of his allies and among his allies are the Colombian rebels—FARC—and the Ecuadorian government. It is now increasingly clear that the Ecuadorian government also considers the rebels their ally.

Why is Venezuela aligned with FARC? What is the interest there?

There is an ideological affinity there and I think that’s the main reason. You have to remember that Chavez defines his government as socialist and it is closely allied to the most radical government in Latin America , which is Cuba, and to the most radical country in the world, which is Iran. It claims to be carrying out a transformation of Venezuelan society to convert it into a socialist society. This is associated with large levels of state ownership of resources and state involvement in economic activity. The government of Venezuela, which should be accurately typified as an extreme left-wing government, is sympathetic to the transformation of change that the rebels are proposing.

In the same way, it is unsympathetic to the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. You have to bear in mind that the whole project Chavez is pushing forward is typical among extreme left regimes. Therefore, Chavez has been explicit in his support of politicians and certain movements, in places like Nicaragua. It is just logical that they would be supporting the extreme left, which in the case of Colombia has a military rather than a political expression.

Of course, FARC apparently makes much of its money from narcotics trade, if that is to be believed. Is there a narcotics problem in Venezuela, as well? Does FARC have a presence in Venezuela?

I’m not an expert on narcotics trade. Furthermore, it’s something that is extremely difficult to identify and measure because it’s part of the underground economy. Nevertheless, there appears to be a growing involvement of drug trafficking in Venezuela and FARC is financed by the operations of narcotics trafficking. In Venezuela the highest echelon of the military appear to be very active in drug trafficking.

Venezuela is not only not making efforts to combat drug trafficking but rather appears to be even allowing drug-trafficking operations free range over its borders.

I am assuming that this whole border dispute will be resolved within the Organization of American States [OAS] relatively soon, but maybe I’m being overly optimistic.

I’m not sure if it will be resolved. In the OAS you have a pretty divided field. You have the very staunch allies of Chavez there, and it’s a significant number of countries. You have Ecuador and Venezuela, Bolivia of course, Nicaragua, there’s definitely a small bloc of countries which are likely to be supporting Venezuela. You have Colombia, the United States, and Mexico, which are very strongly on the other side. Then you have some of the so-called light-left, which in Latin America has tended to take a pro-Chavez position. Brazil and Argentina have already condemned the Ecuador incursion. Venezuela has given very significant economic aid to countries in the Caribbean—very small countries, but each one of them has one vote in the assembly. So I’m sure that Venezuela is going to be able to put up a fight and might even actually achieve an OAS resolution in favor of Ecuador or at least condemning the Colombian action.

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