Is it safe to ignore Hugo Chávez's bellicose rhetoric?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

HUGO CHÁVEZ recently found himself trying to explain, in a live television broadcast, why Venezuelans should limit themselves to three-minute showers. A national water shortage, the latest product of Mr. Chávez's "21st-century socialism," has led to mandatory rationing. There's also a power shortage, which is causing daily blackouts in large parts of the country. Though the country is deep in recession, inflation still runs at nearly 30 percent. Then there is the murder rate, which is on its way to tripling since Mr. Chávez took office; Venezuela and its capital of Caracas now have the highest per-capita murder rates in the world, according to the State Department.

So few were terribly surprised Sunday when Mr. Chávez sidestepped those subjects on his weekly television show -- and instead appeared to declare war on neighboring Colombia. "Let's not waste a day on our main aim: to prepare for war and to help the people prepare for war," the strongman told his military leaders.

The bluster was taken in stride by most Venezuelans, who according to a recent poll oppose conflict with Colombia by a margin of 4 to 1. Venezuela's largest newspapers played the story below other news. Even the Colombian government's response was relatively low-key, though it talked about appealing to the United Nations and the Organization of American States. The State Department blandly suggested "dialogue" between the two countries.

We'll accept that this is just another instance of Mr. Chávez's buffoonery. Still, it's worth noting: This is the second time in less than 18 months that Mr. Chávez has ordered troops to the Colombian border and suggested that hostilities were imminent. In the past few years he has spent more than $4 billion on arms purchases from Russia alone. He claims to be worried that a recent U.S. agreement with Colombia, under which U.S. Air Force and Navy units will have expanded access to military bases, is meant to facilitate a U.S. invasion of Venezuela. In fact, he has something to worry about: The bases will be used for U.S. drug surveillance flights, and Mr. Chávez is known to be cooperating with terrorist organizations that are trafficking drugs from Colombia through Venezuela.

Few believe that Mr. Chávez will start a war with Colombia. But then, as a couple of seasoned Latin American observers have pointed out, no one believed Argentina's similarly beleaguered strongman, Leopoldo Galtieri, when he began threatening to take Argentina to war with Britain in 1982. In the annals of the region's authoritarian populism, stranger things have happened.

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