Time to Confront Chávez

MEXICO CITY – In early September, Colombia’s biggest businesses surprised everyone by declaring their wholehearted support for the country’s president, Alvaro Uribe, in his deepening conflict with Venezuela. If they lost the huge export market next door, well, that would simply be too bad.

For the first time, Colombian exporters of just about everything Venezuela buys, from toilet paper to gasoline, fruit and vegetables, and milk and meat, gave their president the green light to confront Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, instead of continuing to turn the other cheek, as they had been pressing him to do in the eight years since Uribe took office.

Venezuela had become a magnificent business opportunity for Colombian exporters. It produces next to nothing anymore (except oil), has a highly subsidized official exchange rate, and wields huge sums of petro-dollars with which it can buy up everything in sight. While Colombia’s authorities were forced to deal with Chávez’s frequent insults, interventions in Colombia’s internal affairs, massive arms purchases, and diplomatic tantrums, the business community profited and pressured the government to compromise. Until now, that is what the government did.

The hesitation of Colombia’s business community to confront Chávez  may prove to have been the last remaining hurdle for Uribe, the United States, and a handful of Latin American democracies to clear before they could face up to Chávez. It is past time that they did.