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Latin America Report

South American Saber-Rattling: Why A 'Skeleton' Venezuela Is Threatening Colombia

Rafael Urdaneta Rojas
MANGY MILITARY: Venezuelan soldiers during recent exercises near the Colombian border.

Are Venezuela and Colombia headed for war? Believe it or not, that's the big worry in South America right now.

Colombia ended its long civil war three years ago – but last month leaders of Colombia's Marxist guerrillas, the FARC, said they're taking up arms again against the government. Colombia accused Venezuela's socialist regime of backing the rebels. Venezuela responded by holding military exercises on its border with Colombia. The U.S. then promised to defend Colombia if it's attacked; and it's calling on the rest of the hemisphere to do the same.

Colombian President Iván Duque is set to visit Miami this week, and he'll give a speech at Florida International University. To understand what all this South American saber rattling means, WLRN’s Tim Padgett spoke with Frank Mora, who directs FIU’s Latin American and Caribbean Center and was the Defense Department's Latin America point man under former President Barack Obama.

READ MORE: As Maduro Takes Disputed Oath, Is Venezuela Dangerous As Well As Desperate?

Excerpts from the conversation:

WLRN: Venezuelans and Colombians are two of the largest expat communities in South Florida. Should they, and the rest of us, be genuinely worried about a war between their two countries?

MORA: I think they should be worried. There are a lot of threats and deployments of troops. But I think it's unlikely. However, however accidents do happen and they can escalate.

In that case, let's start with the first accusation. Colombian president Iván Duque says Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is backing the FARC guerrillas in their bid to restart Colombia's civil war. Is that a valid charge?

I think it is. There's ample evidence the Venezuelan regime has been supporting the Colombian guerrillas, and Colombian guerrilla organizations are engaged in all kinds of illicit activities, particularly drug trafficking, some of them in cooperation with Venezuelan military and other officials. This is the problem with Venezuela – it's becoming a failing state that has no control over its borders, and that gives opportunities for groups like the FARC to operate against the Colombian state.

Invoking the Rio Treaty is symbolic but also problematic because it raises expectations – particularly among those in the South Florida expat community who think it will ultimately lead to a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela. –Frank Mora

So why is it in the Venezuelan regime's interests to see the Colombian civil war restarted?

Because they've always felt that the Colombian government has been committed to undermining the Venezuelan regime, and so they're using the guerrillas as an instrument to attack back.

And if we could just quickly explain to people why this dissident group of FARC leaders suddenly wants to go back to war.

Well, there's a lot of different explanations. They're arguing that the [peace agreement] commitments the Colombian government made are not being upheld. They're also saying a number of social organization leaders are being assassinated, which is true. But the truth also is that one of the four dissident leaders has been indicted for drug trafficking, and the United States has been asking for his extradition. So he felt obviously very vulnerable and they've decided then to find an alternative way of surviving.

So it's back to the mountains with an AK-47 rifle. So then Venezuelan President Maduro stages bellicose military exercises on the border. But the joke here, frankly, is that the Miami-Dade County Police Department could beat Venezuela in a war. Colombia would likely destroy Venezuela's military. Could Maduro really be serious about threatening Colombia?

No, I don't think he's serious, because you're absolutely right, the Venezuelan military is at best a skeleton of what it used to be, and that would mark the end of the Maduro regime.


But now the Trump Administration wants to activate the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, or the Rio Treaty, to defend Colombia militarily against Venezuela.

Credit Courtesy Florida International University
FIU's Frank Mora (left) with then Colombian Ambassador to the U.S. Juan Carlos Pinzon in 2017.

Right, that is a collective hemispheric defense arrangement where an attack on one would be considered an attack on all. It’s really symbolic – but problematic, because it raises expectations, particularly among people in this [South Florida expat] community who think that this will ultimately lead to a United States military intervention. And you've heard me say this many times, that the United States will not be intervening in any way in Venezuela. It has too many other strategic priorities now, particularly Iran.

Still, the Rio Treaty would seem to give the Administration a more kosher reason for intervening militarily in Venezuela because it could say it’s protecting a hemispheric ally.

So there's a legal instrument, you're right, that would legitimize such a thing. But there is a disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality – and talking about Venezuela in those terms, you're raising expectations that intervention is inevitable...when it isn’t.

Colombian President Iván Duque will appear at the University of Miami’s Braman Miller Center on Friday, at 1 p.m. for a conversation with the Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer. He will speak on Saturday (time TBA) at Florida International University’s Wertheim Performing Arts Center.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.