Chavez Mobilizes Troops, Sends Colombia Warning
STEVEN INSKEEP, host:
Here's how troops ended up poised on the borders of three South American nations. Columbia continued its war against rebels over the weekend. That's an interval fight, Columbians against Columbians, but this time the military attacked rebels who had taken refuge just outside the country. To get them, the Columbian forces moved inside Ecuador. And now Ecuador's responded by increasing its border forces. So has its ally, nearby Venezuela.
NPR's Juan Forero covers the region. And, Juan, could this really lead to war?
JUAN FORERO: Well, no one really thinks so. A lot of people think that this is saber rattling by the Venezuelans and by the Ecuadorians, which is where the rebel was killed, just inside the Ecuadorian border with Columbia.
INSKEEP: Now, when you say saber rattling in Venezuela, you immediately think of Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan president has been very vocal against Columbia and its ally, the United States.
FORERO: Yes, exactly. Hugo Chavez came out Saturday to criticize the strike. And then yesterday, on Sunday, he came out and said that he was going to mobilize 10 battalions, as well as tanks and airplanes and put them right on the Columbian border. He also warned Columbian President Alvaro Uribe that if there were any moves into Venezuelan territory, the Venezuelans would strike back. He said that war was possible.
There's a sense that Hugo Chavez is trying to whip up the nationalism card because of the problems he has back at home.
INSKEEP: I have to ask, though, this has not only caused troubles with Ecuador, the country whose territory Columbia actually violated, but Venezuela. What made Columbia think that this would be worth the trouble?
FORERO: Well, Columbia has been at war with the FARC, a major rebel group, for more than 40 years. During that time, they had never gotten one of the rebels in the top echelon of that organization. When they were able to track down a top rebel just inside of Ecuador, they decided it was worth the trouble.
INSKEEP: And where does the United States fall in all of this?
FORERO: United States is Columbia's major benefactor, providing almost six billion in mostly military aid since 2000. And Columbia is the Bush administration's closest ally in Latin America. So the United States is supportive of Columbian actions.
Having said that, the United States has not voiced approval over what Columbia did, at least not publicly yet.
INSKEEP: So we have on one side Columbia and its ally, the United States. We have on the other side Ecuador and its ally Venezuela, countries that have had very harsh things to say about each other. What, if anything, binds these countries together right now?
FORERO: Well, they have a long history. They share commerce. They share customs, language. These countries have been very close in the past, and so there is a hope that through diplomacy, they're going to be able to get past this.
INSKEEP: And are their economies pretty closely linked?
FORERO: Well, yes, and particularly Columbia and Venezuela's. Venezuela is Columbia's second largest trading partner after the United States. And Venezuela is quite dependent on Columbian goods - food goods and assembled cars and so forth. So there are ties. And along those borders, particularly on the Venezuela/Ecuadorian border, there are a lot of family ties. People go back and forth. They have relatives on one or the other side of the borders. And people work in the other country.
INSKEEP: Does that mean that people have been commuting, perhaps, this morning, even as troops are moving toward the border?
FORERO: Yeah, that's correct. There have been times when Venezuela has shut down the border or made it more difficult for people to get into Venezuela from Columbia. But so far, yes, things seem to be normal on the border in terms of families and folks moving across, moving goods across, going to work in the other country.
INSKEEP: NPR's Juan Forero covers South America. Thanks very much.
FORERO: Thank you.
INSKEEP: You heard him on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.