IN NOVEMBER 2006, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), the Marxist terror group that has waged a nearly half-century war against the Colombian state, circulated an open letter to the academic and Hollywood left, requesting that their "always generous solidarity" with Third World liberation movements again be marshaled to "pressure President Bush and his government to support a prisoner exchange in Colombia." The mediation request was addressed to Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, and, bizarrely, Denzel Washington. It was signed, with comradely greetings, by FARC "foreign minister" and second-in-command Raul Reyes.
Last Saturday the Colombian military briefly trespassed the border of neighboring Ecuador and, in a combined arms raid, disposed of Reyes. Acknowledging his military's one mile incursion into Ecuadorian territory, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe offered the country's chavista president, Rafael Correa, a perfunctory apology. Predictably, he refused to be assuaged. When Colombia claimed that the terrorists were killed during a "hot pursuit" operation that spilled across the border, Correa complained that Reyes, along with 23 other members of his execution and kidnap gang, had in fact been killed "in their pajamas."
Reyes's killing has had a curious effect on Venezuela's buffoonish president Hugo Chávez, whose borders have not been traversed in combat with FARC. In a fist-shaking, spittle-flecked television speech, Chávez announced the Venezuelan military would be mobilized for war and ordered ten tank divisions and 10,000 troops to the country's border with Colombia. It was, he told reporters, a "defensive" action.
Chávez's belligerence can't simply be attributed to revolutionary fraternalism with his dreary Ecuadorian acolyte. It is increasingly clear that his 'Bolivarian' revolution is guided by an ideological affinity with FARC. On his meandering weekly monologue program, Aló Presidente, Chávez eulogized the "revolutionary hero" Raul Reyes and decreed a minute of silence to honor those killed in Uribe's "cowardly assassination." Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega echoed Chávez, denouncing the "murder" of his "dear brother" Reyes. (Missing from American media accounts, though outlined in the Venezuelan opposition newspaper Tal Cual, was the telling detail that Reyes was sent for "political and ideological training" in the Soviet Union.)
That Chávez lauds the villainous and murderous--Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, he says, is a "freedom fighter," the jailed terrorist Carlos the Jackal is "a good friend"--is hardly surprising. In January, he called for the rejection of the American and European Union designation of FARC as a terrorist organization, arguing that the group possesses "political and Bolivarian goals, and [in Venezuela] that is respected."
While most media accounts of the tensions in South America have provided little in the way of context, it is worth reminding readers of the utter cruelty, depravity, and barbarism that animates the FARC; the methods employed to achieve those "respected goals." A chilling, and by no means anomalous, news report from the June 2, 2001, edition of the Washington Post is illustrative: "[W]hat has most shaken people in this region of timber and cattle is that the FARC's methods were more ostentatiously brutal than the gunshots the group usually employs. The bodies that have been recovered all showed deep wounds to the neck, and one of three women killed showed evidence of having been raped." Such an orgy of killing was common, in other words, and only remarkable in its brutality. The 23 victims, the Post noted, were hacked to death using machetes.
The Colombian government has frequently complained that FARC operates openly from inside the borders of both Venezuela and Ecuador--with a nod and wink from Correa and Chávez. And there has indeed emerged evidence to support this claim. In 2005, for instance, FARC's "international spokesman" Rodrigo Granda, wanted on a variety of charges by the Colombian government, was snatched by bounty hunters in Caracas, where he lived under government protection and in possession of a Venezuelan passport issued by the Chávez government.
In a press conference following the Ecuador raid, a Colombian military spokesman presented a series of documents captured from the FARC camp further--and even more convincingly--connecting the terror group to both Chávez and Correa. The material details a financial relationship between Chávez and the group dating back to his early days as a coup-monger, and outlines Venezuela's recent $300 million bequest to the group. Another document states that "[Interior Minister of Ecuador Gustavo] Larrea is interested in establishing official relations with FARC on behalf of President Rafael Correa." Ecuador has acknowledged that the documents are genuine, though insists--implausibly--that its talks with FARC were merely attempts to secure the release of hostages.
Despite the troop movements and Chávez's public rabidity, war between the two countries seems, at this point, unlikely. Though he presides over an economy benefiting from high oil prices, Chávez is hardly in a position to wage a costly and potentially unpopular war. With the suicidal implementation of price controls and his popularity at all-time lows, Venezuela is in the grip of mini-domestic crisis; massive shortages in staple food items, like eggs, milk, and meat have meant an erosion of support amongst his large number of poor constituents.
It is also unlikely that Chávez would risk providing the Venezuelan military a pretext for attempting another coup. Chávez's former defense minister, Raúl Baduel, who was instrumental in bringing Chávez back to power after the April 2002 coup, publically broke with the government last year and called the mobilization against Colombia "a desperate attempt by President Chávez to use the military for political and personal ends, making [soldiers] participants in an action whose consequences could be disastrous." Indeed, according to published reports in Caracas and the United States, when Chávez realized he would lose his December 2007 referendum to amend the constitution (and allow him to run for presidency indefinitely), it was the military that intervened to ensure that a public concession was forthcoming.
Exhausted by a decades-long war, Colombians are nevertheless supportive of Uribe's offensive against FARC. According to an opinion poll published this week in Colombia's national daily El Tiempo, 83 percent of Colombians support the strike on Raul Reyes. But in Venezuela, the public is getting restless. Forget about war: If Chávez makes good on his threats to cut off trade with Colombia and to nationalize its companies operating in Venezuela, the economic consequences would be dire, and the consequences for the Bolivarian Revolution could prove fatal.
Michael Moynihan is an associate editor at Reason magazine and a visiting fellow at the Swedish think tank Timbro.