Rumblings Of War Against Venezuela? A Trap For Colombia

The Venezuelan crisis impacts Colombia directly. But military intervention, as hinted by Trump, could be disastrous.

Venezuelan soldier during a military exercise
Venezuelan soldier during a military exercise
Humberto de la Calle


BOGOTÁ — Accusing Democrats of seeking to ruin the United States with "radical socialism and open borders," President Donald Trump promised supporters at a rally last month in Las Vegas that he "won't allow the United States of America to become the next Venezuela." Sound familiar?

Yes, here in Colombia we're used to that kind of talk. Except that we're right next door to Venezuela. The United States isn't anywhere close, which is why hearing Trump harp on it for political purposes sounds so ludicrous. But it's also worrisome. Let's not forget, after all, that Trump earlier said he wouldn't discount the use of military force in Venezuela.

It's one thing to recognize that there's a problem in Venezuela, and agree that it shouldn't be completely ignored, the way former Jose Miguel Insulza did during his years as secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS). His successor, Luis Almagro, has been more proactive, and that's a good thing. But military intervention?

Trump said he wouldn't discount the use of military force in Venezuela.

The Lima Group, a multilateral body seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela, opposes it. But Colombia did not sign the group's recent declaration rejecting force. And our new ambassador in Washington, Francisco ("Pacho") Santos, seems to like the idea, which President Iván Duque, fortunately, has neutralized.

There's something macabre about the situation, like drunken youths deciding to play Russian roulette late at night. Don't forget, there's a real bullet in that pistol. Really? A military intervention in Venezuela? It could be a disaster, with Colombia on the front line of it.

Let us consider our tool box in this situation. Duque is right to condemn Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro"s dismal regime. And he was right to threaten taking Maduro to the International Court at The Hague. All of that falls within international law.

Duque and Trump at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25 — Photo: The White House

But Colombia cannot run the risk of making itself the head of a crusade against Maduro. It needs to be careful not to get caught up in some kind of macho-man pissing contest. Yes, let us have a united front against Maduro, but not with Colombia at the forefront, and certainly not as Washington's local sheriff.

Also, we should have a unified position on Venezuela domestically, which means putting and end to all that silly talk about how our last president, Juan Manuel Santos, was a "Castro-Chavista" — an ally of the Bolivarian regime. Colombia's rapprochement with Venezuela was entirely tactical, not ideological. It was clear to the Santos administration that Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, was an unavoidable condition for sitting FARC guerrillas at the negotiating table. And the strategy worked, as the eventual peace deal can attest.

Who would fight this war?

And if there were military action? What might it entail? Some think it could be a neat, surgical little operation like the removal of Panama's Manuel Noriega. But there's not guarantee of that. A lot depends on the Venezuelan military. If there is a reaction, it could start looking like Iraq, and if there are regional repercussions, we might envisage a Vietnam-type quagmire. Who would pay the price if not Colombia?

And who would fight this war? U.S. advisers and local peasants, as always. Or our rank-and-file soldiers, all from humble backgrounds. War is less ugly when viewed from the safe distance of your social club in the capital.

There's also the question what the ELN, the country's other, still-active guerilla army would do. Could this terrorist fifth column become stronger? And who else would be involved in the decision to launch military action? When it comes to using force, the United Nations has a say. Would China and Russia be on board? And what about Maduro's friends in the Arab world?

It's not a stretch, in other words, to say that military intervention in Venezuela risks sowing more seeds for a global confrontation. The best war, needless to say, is the one you do not have to fight.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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