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21 May 2008

Bloodshed in South America

Hugh O'Shaughnessy ponders the games being played out on the borders of Venezuela and Colombia and w

By Kenzie Eliasen

It not quite like the Gulf of Tonkin yet. But it certainly looks as if someone is looking for an excuse for bloodshed in Latin America.

In August 1964 Washington started to mobilise its forces against North Vietnam after US reports of a naval attack by the Communist navy on two of its destroyers in those waters. Before long US forces were pouring into Vietnam, just as they would pour into Iraq. The trouble was that the naval attack was acknowledged by the US government in 2005 to have been just as much of a fiction their claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in 2003. Indeed the US vessels fired first off North Vietnam.

At the weekend US military aircraft based a few miles from the Venezuelan coast on the Dutch island of Curacao – which some readers may remember reading about here a few weeks ago – overflew the Venezuelan island of La Orchila. The US forces say it might have been “a navigational error”.

The US flight comes only a few days after the Venezuelan government reported that Colombian troops had penetrated its territory and had to be directed back to their side of the border.

And the Colombian armed incursion into Venezuela follows the 1 March attack on Ecuadorean territory when several dozen men – possibly in a guerrilla camp – were killed by Colombian forces. President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia is George Bush’s principal ally in Latin America and is one of the principal recipients of US military aid.

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Now, far from backing off from their hostile actions against Venezuela, the US and the Colombians are going out of their way to increase the tension – just as Washington did in the Gulf of Tonking and in the days preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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William Brownfield, the US ambassador in the Colombian capital, suggested the other day that if, as the Ecuadoreans have announced, the US have to quit the naval and air base at Manta on the coast of Ecuador when the lease runs out next year, they might find a new home in Colombia. He suggested that somewhere on the Goajira peninsula would suit the Pentagon just dandy. The trouble is that the peninsula has for years been the most sensitive spot of all along Colombia’s frontier with Venezuela.

In February 1992, thirty years after my first visit to Venezuela, I found myself in the baking desert hell of the Goajira watching the strange black-robed indigenous people making what they could of the latest news from Caracas. A young Colonel Hugo Chávez had just failed in his attempt to overthrow the government. Years later the Venezuelans were to freely elect Chávez as their president but the region and the waters round it were, and continue to be, a continuous sources of bickering between Venezuela and Colombia. It remains the perfect spot for a little international mischief making between the two countries.

Unsuprisingly a week ago Chávez warned publicly against the idea of a US base there. “Colombia is launching a threat of war at us,” he announced.

It is clear that as president-elect Fernando Lugo, the latest member of the reform generation coming to the fore in the region, prepares to take over the leadership of Paraguay in August there are worried men in Washington. Many of them inhabit the Pentagon.

In July the US Navy is, as a sign of annoyance, reviving its Fourth Fleet in Latin American waters. And the verbal assault on Chávez continues.

Michael Braun, a senior figure in the US Drug Enforcement Agency, recently told a Colombian newspaper “Venezuela is probably the most important trafficking point in Latin America”. This point sits uneasily with the fact that it is Colombia, the US ally, which is by far the world largest producer of cocaine about which Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe knows all too much.

President Evo Morales high in the Andes in La Paz wrestles with the prosperous white leaders of the lowlanders in Santa Cruz who want effectively to opt out of Bolivia and take their oil and gas with them. There are all too many people of indigenous blood like Morales in their country, some in Santa Cruz think. Meanwhile, say the whisperers in the Caribbean, Zulia, the oil-rich Venezuela state which has a border with Colombia along the Goajira peninisula, wants to secede as well.

In Ecuador yet other whisperers are at work suggesting that the popular reformist President Correa will also be facing secession similar to the one facing Morales. Like the whites of Santa Cruz in their fight with La Paz, the civic leaders of the port of Guayaquil, land of the world’s most powerful banana barons, have always been unhappy with the power of the indigenous leaders established among the volcanic peaks in Quito. Will this be another chance to blunt the Latin Americans’ drive for change?

Macbeth’s three witches would be quite at home among the troublemakers in today’s South America. They’d certainly get a warm welcome in Colombia.