It seems that very little one hears from Venezuela, the Latin American pariah state, will raise eyebrows in a world grown accustomed to the bombastic rhetoric of its socialist president. However, the recent revelations from cables leaked by Wikileaks to El País, the Spanish newspaper, bring to light some unsettling developments that may force the South American community to rethink its position toward its oil rich neighbor.
The cables reveal that Hugo Chavez has successfully secured one hundred man-portable anti-aircraft missiles as well as one hundred Igla missiles, one TOR M-1 air defense system, and an unknown amount of S-300 missiles – all from Russia. The man-portable anti-aircraft missiles are particularly concerning should they fall into the hands of a group like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). The anti-aircraft missiles have been described by the US as “one of the deadliest portable air defense systems ever made,” and with a “range of 2.5-4 miles, the Blackhawks operating in Colombia would be an easy target.”
These revelations are of particular concern in the context of Chavez’s increasingly weak position. His social program continues to fail and the economy continues to languish, even while the rest of the continent has enjoyed almost unprecedented growth. Next year his party will have a minority in congress, and Chavez’s own election, held in 2012, may be at risk.
The gravest concern is what Chavez may do to remain in power should his Bolivarian revolution continue to crumble around him. He has been known to create crises to boost his popularity in the past, and armed conflict, most likely within his own state or with Colombia, is a real threat. The South American continent has been one of the more stable regions on the globe for the past several decades, and the need to increase arms is not apparent in the absence of belligerent neighbors.
Faced with the prospect of a desperate leader lashing out in a last effort to cling to power, it may be time for the region to rethink its strategy of largely ignoring the Venezuelan problem in order to avoid a threat to the rapid growth and consolidation of democracies in the region. The cables reveal that at least one leader has made such an effort, albeit not publicly. In 2009, President Calderón of Mexico pressed the then Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair for the US to lean on Brazil to take steps to restrain Chavez, who according to Calderon, “is active everywhere, even in Mexico.”
South American leaders must be aware of the consequences of an increasingly armed and potentially unstable Venezuela in the region. They should take all of the necessary steps to prevent conflict, and avoid a situation where the US, unable to engage the greater South American community, may fall back on supplying weapons to Colombia to balance against Venezuelan arming. The specter of a major armed conflict between the two states could undermine two decades of growth and stabilization, and compromise what looks to be a bright future for the continent. If the continent desires to continue on its current path, the time has come where it must actively defend what has been built. Although this does not imply a direct confrontation, the community must begin to build a framework for dealing with destabilizing threats.