Foreign Affairs | 4/1/2011 12:00:00 AM
The war that never occurred
SEMANA shows what was the United States position in the crisis with Venezuela and Ecuador. The U.S. government did not consider giving military support to Colombia and believed that the possibility of war was very low.
Wikileaks cables reveal unknown aspects. In the first of the crisis, for example, Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, personally authorized the ‘Fenix Operation’ against Reyes in Ecuador, knowing it would provoke a crisis with the neighboring country. He told it to the U.S. Embassy, according to a cable of March 5, 2008, in which he also referred to President Rafael Correa as a hypocrite.
But he did not calculated that this incident would cause a crisis with Venezuela and other countries in the area. And even though the computers of Reyes increased the scandal, the Colombian government saw an opportunity to show them nationally and internationally in order to prove that the neighboring countries were hiding terrorists. According to a March 5 cable, Santos gave the information before the attack to Senator Germán Vargas, to get him to denounced the FARC's presence in other countries.
The defense minister also gave a copy of Reyes’ computer to Ambassador William Brownfield, while providing Venezuela with only ninety documents and Ecuador with thirty. Everything was part of a strategy to reveal information linking Chavez and Correa to the FARC organization.
In another cable, Minister Santos thanked Brownfield for having shared intelligence from Venezuela and Ecuador, and even though he did not think it was a real possibility that Chavez would attack Colombia, he asked what action the U.S. would take if this occurred. The ambassador said that the chances of a confrontation at the border were "extremely remote". That was the conclusion reached by the Americans after monitoring the Venezuelan military movements since Chavez gave the order to send ten battalions to the border. "The lack of training, testing, and not investing in military equipment have slowed the military mobilization", they said in one cable. Not even a third of the troops completed the journey of 260 miles.
There was not any possibility that tensions with Ecuador would end in a war, either. The Defense Minister of Ecuador, Wellington Sandoval, said, embarrassed, to the U.S. Ambassador, Linda Jewell, that even though the press in his country showed that Ecuadorian troops were moving toward the border with Colombia, they only had an helicopter, up to 18 soldiers. He even said the anti-aircraft radar was off when Colombian planes bombed the camp of Reyes in Ecuador.
The main concern of the U.S. Embassy in Quito was to end the suspicion that existed in parts of the government and the Assembly of Ecuador, indicating that the Colombians had used the Manta base and had been supported by U.S. in the operation against Reyes. As evidenced by several cables, Jewell reiterated to Ecuadorian officials that the United States was not involved and that the Colombian jet was able to give such a hit.
In addition to diplomatic efforts in Colombia and Ecuador to defuse the crisis, the United States launched a political offensive in other countries in order to prevent Colombia from being sentenced for violating international law, in the Organization of American States (OAS) summit on 4 and 5 March. "Argentina lowered its profile in its speech on the second day, as a result of the efforts of the Embassy in Buenos Aires to control the Ambassador Gil”, a cable said.
The final decision was postponed to March 17, when the verification mission of the OAS presented its final report. This gave Correa some time to take a tour looking for support from other Latin American leaders, who told him they felt pressured by the United States to help Colombia and not his country. However, Washington had insisted on knowing in which side each government was. Cables from the embassies of Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and Nicaragua informed the U.S. if those countries were aligned with Colombia or Ecuador.
Colombia, meanwhile, had asked Brownfield to help blocking a resolution promoted by Ecuador at the Security Council of United Nations. Colombia argued that the crisis should be discussed at the OAS, where in fact was resolved days later.
Fears of renewed conflict with Venezuela appeared again on November 8, 2009, when Chavez announced to be prepared for war after Colombia signed the military agreement with the U.S. He thought American troops could attack his country from Colombia to seize Venezuelan oil reserves.
That same afternoon, the Defense Minister, Gabriel Silva, called Brownfield to ask him about intelligence on Venezuela. He also asked for a statement against the threats of Chavez. The ambassador had just hung up with the Defense Minister when he received a call from Uribe, who asked for advice on how to deal with this new challenge. Brownfield recommended him to talk with Lula and "suggested him to think about what Chavez was hoping him to do, and told him to do the opposite”.
Another cable from the Embassy in Caracas said Chavez's threats were an strategy to divert attention from domestic problems faced in Venezuela, and that there was no evidence of mobilization of troops. He warned, however, that certain sectors in Venezuela thought that Chavez believed in a Colombian-American conspiracy against him.
A few days later, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, called to get information about the emotional and psychological state of Hugo Chávez. "Is he angry or emotionally affected by what is going on? Is his behavior increasingly paranoid, suspicious or has changed at all?”, she asked.
The United States was also concerned that fear might interfere in Colombian government decisions. Brownfield described in a cable the theories of one of Uribe's closest advisers, who felt uneasy, not so much by the threat of Venezuela ordering 15,000 troops to move to the border, but by the stupidity and lack of discipline of the troops from the neighboring country, which could end up opening fire by accident. She also believed that Chavez was able to go to war under any pretext, to evade the internal crisis, as the Argentinean dictatorship did in the Falklands.
Brownfield also reported that certain sectors of Colombian society (government officials, politicians and union representatives) believed that Venezuela's geopolitical strategy was to isolate Colombia while expanding its influence throughout the rest of the continent. The ambassador mentioned that Uribe sent a letter to President Obama in which he urged him to sign the Free Trade Agreement, fearing that President Chavez could cut off trade with Colombia.
The low priority the U.S. gave to the crisis caused discomfort in the Colombian government. "The perception that the U.S. government is not supporting Colombia is becoming a matter of public and private discussion", Brownfield said . Foreign Minister, Jaime Bermúdez, called the ambassador to tell him that he felt that the U.S. position had been too neutral. He said that President Uribe would complain to the Under-Secretary of State, James Steinberg, who would be visiting the country in a few days. But Steinberg canceled the visit because of scheduling problems and Uribe interpreted the move as a snub.
The State Department cables show that Americans never saw a real military confrontation, as Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela feared. Their intervention in both episodes was due more to protect their own interests in the region than to protect its ally on the continent. For the United States, war was never possible.