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Fears of military conflict between Venezuela and Colombia as tensions over Maduro government escalate

Venezuelan armed forces take part in military exercises near the Colombian border last week. (Johnny Parra/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The U.S.-led effort to force Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from office has moved into a new stage, with rising fears of military conflict between Venezuela and Colombia, and the activation of a 70-year-old mutual defense treaty among countries of the Western Hemisphere.

Members of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance agreed last week to invoke the 1947 pact, better known as the Rio Treaty, that allows joint actions ranging from economic sanctions to the use of military force and cutting transport and communications links. Foreign ministers of the treaty’s 19 member nations are due to meet later this month to decide which measures are necessary to stem the threat.

“If your neighbor’s house is burning down, do you stand and shout you should not intervene, or do you help your neighbor put out the fire?” Carlos Trujillo, U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), said in a heated debate on the issue Wednesday.

Colombia has charged that Maduro, who announced military exercises on their shared border last week, is hosting and arming Colombian guerrillas who have threatened to reignite a terrorist campaign, including what Colombia’s intelligence service contends are plans to begin bombing central sites in Bogota, the capital, according to U.S. and Latin American officials.

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President Trump has expressed frustration at Maduro’s staying power, eight months after the administration recognized a new, opposition-led government in Venezuela and began imposing heavy sanctions on Maduro officials and the country’s oil-dominated economy. Last week, he criticized his fired national security adviser, John Bolton, who was orchestrating the policy. Mocking him as “Mr. Tough Guy” on a variety of issues, Trump said Bolton was “holding me back” on Venezuela.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has long advocated a more muscular approach to Venezuela, spoke Thursday in support of Trump’s comments after what he said was a conversation with the president.

Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro insisted that his country will win in the face of fresh sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. (Video: Reuters)

“If in fact the direction of policy changes” in the wake of Bolton’s departure, Rubio said on Twitter, “it won’t be to make it weaker.”

Administration officials, while acknowledging that the treaty includes provisions for the use of military force, said their immediate goal was to escalate sanctions — including the possible interdiction at sea of ships carrying Venezuelan oil — and provide a legal framework for other countries in the hemisphere to join them.

“The treaty provides a playbook, from a political, sanctions and military perspective,” a senior administration official said. “What it does is provide resoluteness in the direction that the region is headed.” This official and others discussed the sensitive issue on the condition of anonymity.

But U.S. zeal, and the history of American military intervention in the region, has made some treaty members wary of invoking the pact.

“It’s a slippery slope. You do it for sanctions, but then you find yourself with this possibility of conflict as well,” said a senior official of one major Latin American country with close ties to the United States. “You can make it stop at sanctions, fine, but then you leave the door open to further activity.”

Interdictions at sea or closing airspace to Venezuela, another contemplated action, both imply the possible use of force, this official said.

Mexico, which withdrew from the treaty in 2004 but participated in Wednesday’s OAS debate, was more publicly pointed.

“Mexico will not remain silent during the irresponsible convocation of this treaty,” said the country’s OAS ambassador, Luz Elena Baños Rivas, who called it a “pretense” for the use of force.

Far from the outside intervention that the treaty was designed to protect against, she said, Venezuela’s conflict was an internal one, and “there is no conflict that requires military defense.”

Trump administration officials, as they have for many months, insist Maduro’s grip on power and the loyalty of those around him — including the military — is close to cracking.

By moving more troops to the border and providing support for Colombian guerrillas, the senior administration official said, Maduro is creating an “existential crisis” for his own armed forces, whose loyalty is already in doubt.

But those forces, Colombian and U.S. officials said, are under the thumb of Cuba — which has thousands of intelligence officials in Venezuela — and Russia, which has provided Venezuela with one of the most formidable arsenals in South America. Havana has acknowledged there are thousands of Cubans in Venezuela but says they are health-care and educational workers.

As Venezuela’s misery grows, U.S. focus shifts to Cuba’s role

Those external powers, U.S. officials maintain, are responsible for Maduro’s persistence amid economic collapse and international opposition. As his government prepares to defend itself, Russians have supplied and trained the military. Among the Russian weapons in Venezuela are thousands of 9K38Igla portable surface-to-air missiles.

The Colombians and the Trump administration also say Russia may be upgrading the sophisticated missile defense system it has installed in Venezuela, officials said.

Venezuela has long provided support and refuge for Colombia’s National Liberation Army, known as the ELN for its initials in Spanish. Late last month, a breakaway group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — the country’s separate, far larger guerrilla group — announced it was withdrawing from a 2016 peace agreement with the Colombian government that ended Latin America’s longest conflict.

That internal war left the country in a state of crisis for decades, as leftist rebels kidnapped prominent figures, bombed urban areas, extorted those in the countryside and engaged in extensive narcotics trafficking to support their efforts — activities that were sometimes matched by the Colombian military and the brutal right-wing militias that were formed to combat them.

Under the peace deal, negotiated in Cuba between FARC and the government, the guerrillas agreed to lay down their arms and join the political process in Colombia, in exchange for amnesty and economic benefits.

In a video posted online, which Colombia charged was filmed in Venezuela, the breakaway group declared a “new chapter” in the armed struggle against a government it said had betrayed the deal and not lived up to its obligations.

Surrounded by 20 heavily armed FARC members, top leader Luciano Marín — known by the nom de guerre Iván Márquez — condemned the killing in the past two years of more than 500 left-wing community leaders and 150 former fighters.

“The state has not fulfilled its most important obligations, which is to guarantee the life of its citizens and especially avoid assassinations for political reasons,” Marín said. He said the group would “coordinate” its efforts with the ELN.

Colombian President Iván Duque, a conservative elected after the peace deal was implemented, responded by saying, “Colombia doesn’t accept threats from anyone, much less from drug traffickers.” He called those in the breakaway FARC group a “band of criminals” supported by Maduro.

But many Colombians, already pressured by the presence of nearly 2 million Venezuelans who have crossed the border seeking refuge from economic collapse and growing violence, fear their country is about to regress from nearly two years of welcome peace.

“I’ve already rehired my bodyguards,” said one prominent Colombian, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.