The Pretend War Brewing in the Andes

To all appearances, Colombia and Venezuela are on the brink of war. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently ordered 15,000 troops to the Colombian border, where a series of clashes involving police, regular Army troops, and, allegedly, paramilitaries and guerrillas have flared. Video of red-shirted Venezuelan militias preparing for "asymmetric warfare" against an unnamed "blue nation" is a hit on YouTube. And on Sunday, Chávez took to the radio waves to warn Venezuelans to prepare for the worst. "Fatherland, socialism, or death," he thundered on his weekend radiocast, Aló Presidente, before urging compatriots to "prepare yourselves for war as the best way to avoid it." Meanwhile, Colombia has denied doing anything to provoke its neighbor's ire but appealed to the international community for cover, just in case. But forget the war dance. Instead of steering his country into combat with its neighbor, Chávez is simply wagging the dog: his popularity is plummeting precipitously, and this is little more than an act of political desperation.

Relations have never been fraternal in the decade since Chávez took the reins in Caracas, so Colombians know better than to hit the bomb cellars. They are used to the saber-rattling next door, where the script for the Commandante Hugo's Boliviarian revolution apparently turns on keeping his compañeros in a permanent state of alarm. Most people on both sides of the border simply shrugged and got on with business. And until recently, business has been good. Colombia is Venezuela's largest trade partner after the United States—and its biggest supplier of food, chemicals, cars, and household goods. Bilateral trade reached $7.6 billion last year, an encouraging sign that interests trump ideology. But when Chávez sealed the border after a rash of violent clashes on both sides of the divide, trade collapsed.

Now Colombia has asked for intervention by the the United Nations, and red phones are ringing from Brasilia to Madrid. But, despite Chávez's new cache of Russian tanks and fighter jets ("How can he maintain an Army if he can't maintain the economy?" former Brazilian Navy minister Mário Cesar Flores told me recently), conflict is unlikely because this isn't so much an international standoff as it is a a domestic political crisis. Chávez—whose country has been hit by economic shortages, blackouts, and water rationing—is pressed to the wall, and analysts are starting to talk not of a shooting war, but of a poor man's cold war.

What prompted the latest outburst from Caracas is still unclear, but bilateral relations curdled in August when Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced he would grant U.S. armed forces access to seven military bases. (Earlier this year, Ecuador, a partner in Chávez's Bolivarian alliance, declined to renew permission for the U.S. to use an airbase on its territory.) Colombia claims the pact with Washington is to step up the country's 45-year war on drug traffickers and terrorism. But the gesture rankled many South American governments, ever wary of Tío Sam's big-foot diplomacy, not least in Caracas, which has long regarded Washington as the devil's address. "Make no mistake, Mr. Obama," Chávez warned in his weekly radiocast, alluding to the bases as part of a supposed plot by the U.S. to launch an invasion from Colombian territory. "[We] are willing to do whatever it takes. Venezuela will never again be a colony."

But the airbase is really just a proximate cause. The animating problem here is Venezuela's growing crisis. The steady erosion of the Venezuelan economy has turned his 21st-century socialism into a tropical version of 20th-century communism. Food shortages, power failures, spiraling prices, and speeches are the hallmark of the Bolivarian republic. Inflation is rising at 29 percent a year, the highest in the region.

The power failures are particularly glaring. Wedged between the Andes, the Amazon rainforest, and the Caribbean, and swimming in crude oil, Venezuela ought to be an energy powerhouse. It boasts one of the largest hydroelectric power matrixes in the world. But it has been plagued by electrical failures, including a half dozen nationwide blackouts since 2007. Now homes in some rural areas are dark for four hours a day, and steel mills have had to get by with reduced electricity and water.

Drought is the immediate cause, but the real culprit is a collapse in investment in infrastructure, despite the flood of petrodollars from Venezuela's oil fields. A 2,200-megawatt power plant currently in the works would help, but the $4.6 billion plant touted to begin operation next year, won't be ready before 2014. Worse, the infrastructure failures have come as Chávez has tightened state control over the Venezuelan economy by seizing private energy and utility companies in the name of the Boliviarian cause.

Venezuelans are inured to a certain amount of economic dysfunction. They already suffer some of the worst traffic jams on the planet, thanks to heavily subsidized gasoline, which goes for the petropopulist price of about 17 cents per gallon. But lately the privations have become severe, due in large measure to waste and economic mismanagement. Eggs and milk are hard to find. The government is scrambling to replace medicine imported from Colombia. Despite vast domestic stores of natural gas, Venezuela must pipe in gas from Colombia because it lacks infrastructure and cash to mine its own reserves.

The droughts that drained the reservoirs of hydroelectric plants—and provoking rolling blackouts in homes and factories—recently led Chávez to scold Venezuelan "elites" for such indulgences as air conditioning, switching on the lights in the bathroom, and loitering in the shower. "Some people sing in the shower for half an hour," he reportedly admonished his ministers at a cabinet meeting. "What kind of communism is that?" He went on to order his compatriots to limit bathing to three minutes, and even appeared on national television to demonstrate how to bathe with a gourd, giving cartoonists and comedians a windfall. No wonder there's been a run on water-storage tanks and electrical generators in Caracas.

Venezuelans are not amused. In late October, the independent polling firm Datanálisis found that Chávez's approval ratings had dropped below 50 percent for the first time, and just over 17 percent said they would vote for him if elections were to be held if the presidential election were imminent (down from over 31 percent in September). And without much of a plan to shore up the economy, it stands to reason that he would distract his countrymen.

But if Chávez's goal was to win back hearts and minds by beating the foreign devil, he could be out of luck. Datanálisis also found that nearly 80 percent of Venezuelans said they would disapprove of Chávez declaring war on Colombia—and that was even before the troops were on the move.