Venezuelan government spokesmen sound genuinely worried about a Colombian attack on the border region these days. Talk of a "False Positive" – an attempt, as the Venezuelan government would have it, to attack a fake FARC-camp inside Venezuela – is on the rise.
The up-tick in Venezuelan government paranoia could well be much ado about nothing, but it may also signal that Chávez miscalculated last year when he all but cut off commercial relations with Colombia.
By now, everybody who follows this stuff seriously knows that FARC has substantial a presence in Southwestern Venezuela, both in the Andean and Plains regions, as well as on the sierra to the west of Zulia state. So far, Colombia has refrained from attacking them there, due to a confluence of three factos: a lack of actionable intelligence; fear of the diplomatic and military consequences of a strike vis-à-vis Caracas; and concern about the commercial impact of such an action.
Last year, though, Chávez changed the strategic calculus by prematurely shutting down the border to trade before a shot had been fired. In doing so, whether he realizes it or not, he shifted the strategic calculus facing the Colombians, who no longer have to fear the economic dislocations an attack might bring. Those dislocations have already been brought about by Chavista paranoia alone.
Which is not to suggest that the choice facing Colombia is easy. On the one hand, everyone understands that FARC is nearly impossible to defeat so long as they have a sanctuary in Venezuela. This is true both for military and financial reasons. FARC continues to use drug-trafficking routes enabled by sectors of the Venezuelan military to finance itself, and any Colombian offensive is thwarted as the rebels just melt back across the international border. On the other hand, picking a fight with a militarist narcisist fresh off a Russian weapon shopping spree comes with its own risks.
It’s a tough call. It’s difficult to imagine any government anywhere in the world accepting a military threat like that right on its doorstep. A year ago, the threat of commercial retaliation might have restrained them, but now, only the prospect of bumbling into a shooting war remains.
Chavismo will try to keep the Colombians guessing, wondering if an attack would really carry a major military cost. And some uncertainty will certainly remain. After all, almost by definition, all wars start on the basis of a miscalculation. But my guess is that if the Colombians get some proper, actionable intelligence – something on the level of precision that led to the Raul Reyes raid in 2007 – they’re going to act.
Faced with a fait accompli, would Chávez take on the risks retaliation would imply? Could we be sleep-walking into a crisis here?