Conditional Convenience: Venezuelan Support for FARC Since Hugo Chávez

Throughout his time in power, Venezuelan president Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias had a profound effect on the continuity and development of Colombia’s largest guerrilla movement: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Consequentially, a large body of conservative scholarship has portrayed Chávez as a staunch, ideologically infatuated supporter of Marxist-Leninist guerrillas. Although accurate in some cases, such interpretations present only one side of a multifaceted conversation—discussions of Chávez and his administration tend to devolve quickly to assumptions and sweeping generalizations. In his widely publicized report on emerging security threats from Venezuela, security strategist Daniel Charles Hellinger puts it best:

In a world where information is clouded by propaganda, black ops, blowback, highly partisan analysis (on both sides), and so forth, it is difficult to make absolute judgments about the degree to which Venezuelan military and political officials have been involved in drug and human trafficking or support for insurgents within Colombia.[1]

Given the presence of these intellectual “clouds,” what was the true extent of Venezuelan state support for FARC during Chávez’s presidency, and why did Venezuela ultimately distance itself from the group? A satisfactory answer necessitates an examination of the fluid nature of Chávez’s relationship with FARC, an exploration of the methods and motivations behind Venezuelan sponsorship, and educated speculation on how such support may change in the future.

A closer examination of Chávez’s presidency reveals that his relationship with the guerrillas was not as clear-cut as many foreign policy scholars would have us believe. As is characteristic of an organic political body,[2] the Venezuelan government offered FARC many types and levels of support at different times. Although FARC enjoyed a decade-long surge of support from Venezuela, state-sponsored aid declined dramatically in the final years of Chávez’s administration as a result of Venezuela’s dynamic political circumstances.

The Context: FARC, Colombia, and a New Venezuela (19982002)

Hugo Chávez’s victory in the 1998 Presidential Election was widely lauded as a key step in addressing the past failures of Venezuelan democracy. A revolutionary figure long before his political career, Chávez had advocated for true democracy as a military officer, coup leader, and prisoner since the 1980s. In the first three years of his presidency, he focused on the promises of his Movimiento Quinta Republica (MVR) party, drafting a new constitution designed to promote a protagonistic, participatory democracy.[3] In November of 2011, Chávez and the National Assembly implemented a comprehensive package of twelve decree laws, the most controversial of which shifted control of Venezuela’s primary oil company (PDVSA) largely to the state.[4] An intense opposition movement arose from Venezuela’s middle classes, fueled by suspicions of Chávez increasingly evident leftism.

Based in Colombia, Venezuela’s western neighbor, FARC boasted political and numerical strength in the end of the 1990s. About 20,000 men strong, FARC had staged high-profile kidnappings, bombings, airplane hijackings, drug trafficking operations, extortions of multinational companies, and conventional assaults on Colombian forces since the latter half of the twentieth century. Under President Andrés Pastrana, the Colombian government began a new round of peace negotiations with FARC in 1999; their failure gave way to border skirmishes and the prominent kidnapping of Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in 2002.[5]

The period between 1998-2002 marked the beginning of constructive relations between Chávez and Colombian guerrillas. Although relations were fundamentally positive, Chávez’s focus on expanding his party’s influence in Venezuela largely precluded him from offering explicit monetary or military aid. In 1999, Chávez met with Raul Reyes, a top FARC commander, and suggested the possibility of future assistance intended to alter the “military balance of power in Colombia.” Aside from this notable incident, friendly relations between Chávez and the guerrillas did not amount to expansive state sponsorship: Chávez’s support manifested itself primarily through sympathetic gestures on the international stage and the offering of asylum to “Colombian guerrillas and soldiers alike.”[6]

Chávez’s early years in power were especially significant in that they set the stage for a future breakdown of relations with Colombia and cultivated increasingly favorable relations with FARC. In 2002, the failure of peace negotiations between Colombia and FARC helped Chávez establish further contact with leftist revolutionary leaders. Chávez’s emergence, which “coincided with a period in which the Colombian insurgency had turned away from violence,” allowed a beleaguered FARC to seek refuge after it had been expelled from a government-granted safe zone in central Colombia.[7] For the time being, a blind eye to retreating guerrillas was all Chávez could offer. It was not until the second half of 2002 that he would make the transition from FARC sympathizer to full-on supporter.

Ideology and Convenience: Building “Blocs” of Support (20022010)

The year 2002 marked the decade’s most important turning point in relations between Colombia, Venezuela, and leftist guerrillas. The two drivers for such a profound change were: one, an attempted military coup in Venezuela; and two, the election of center-leftist Alvaro Uribe as the new president of Colombia.

In Venezuela, the catalyst for vastly improved relations between Venezuela and FARC ironically came after Chávez had been removed from power. On the morning of April 11, 2002, tensions between Chávez’s oil industry reforms and the united opposition movement boiled over: agents within the Venezuelan military detained Chávez and transported him to a secure location off the mainland.[8] An international scandal ensued when the United States and several European countries recognized Pedro Carmona’s interim government. While in custody, Chávez reached out to key allies, namely Fidel Castro in Cuba and FARC leader Manuel “Tirofijo” Marulanda.[9] The standoff ultimately ended when the loyalist Venezuelan Presidential Guard reoccupied the presidential palace at Miraflores without firing a shot, negating prior speculation that Chávez had voluntarily resigned to oppositionist factions.

Confiscated FARC documents corroborate Chávez’s increased radicalization after the attempted coup.[10] Weeks after the Miraflores incident, FARC blocs[11] provided documented training in guerrilla and urban warfare to various civilian militias designed to defend Chávez. In September 2002, Rodrigo Granda, a top FARC commander based in Caracas, passed on an appeal from the Venezuelan government requesting small arms and demolitions experts “to get rid of counter-revolutionaries.” Most notably, Chávez’s administration developed a “Contingency Plan” later that year, which specified that FARC-trained paramilitary forces would “attack, neutralize, or liquidate opposition supporters . . . through sabotage and targeted assassination.”[12]

Under the leadership of Alvaro Uribe since the May 26 presidential elections, Colombia also saw significant sociopolitical changes in a short time span. Centered on a hardline anti-guerrilla and anti-crime stance, Uribe’s political platform dramatically increased Colombian military activity against FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN)[13] along the Venezuelan and Ecuadorean borders. In two years, thousands of fighters and mid-level guerrilla commanders were taken into custody, and long-standing guerilla fronts at Cundinamarca and Antioquia had given way to a commanding Colombian military presence.[14] With US backing, Uribe continued the implementation of “Plan Colombia”—a broad counternarcotics and counterterrorism initiative designed to curb the influence of subversive non-state actors.[15]

By 2005, Venezuela’s initial period of political reorganization had devolved into radicalization, confrontation, and power consolidation measures. Chávez rebranded his “Bolivarian Revolution” as “socialism of the twenty-first century” and confirmed his pan-American political movement’s leftist orientation; a landslide reelection victory in 2006 further bolstered his campaign.[16] The period between 2003-2007 was characterized by a strong shift toward anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism, and increased alignment with leftist governments in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.[17] As part of this new diplomatic platform, the Venezuelan government sought closer alliances with non-state ideological allies including FARC. Almost simultaneously, Chávez began to break off diplomatic relations with Colombia under a cloud of bellicose rhetoric and accusations of imperialist aggression—an air of political tension that lingered for almost a decade.


Before detailing the specific methods by which Venezuela aided FARC, the underlying reasons behind state support must be explored. What, if anything, did Chávez and his country stand to gain from an alliance with an international guerrilla movement?

Venezuela’s increasing support for FARC between 2002-2010 was motivated by several key factors: compatibility between Chavist Bolivarianism and Marxist-Leninist ideologies, the desire to accomplish political goals with plausible deniability, and to a lesser extent, economic benefits. In short, FARC was at once an ideological ally—a profitable vessel for undermining imperialist forces—and a non-state actor that could be courted or abandoned at will, depending on political circumstances.

At the time, Chávez’s administration and FARC’s leadership shared fundamentally similar ideologies. Since its founding in 1964, FARC’s stated goal had been sociopolitical: to create a Colombia that freed working classes from “economic depredations of the ruling bourgeoisie,” neo-imperialism, corporate resource monopolies, and repressive violence from Colombian state forces.[18] Chavismo, which aimed “to establish a loosely aligned federation of revolutionary republics as a resistance bloc in the Americas,” appears different from FARC’s Marxism-Leninism at first glance, suggesting a nationalist pan-American ideology over traditional leftism.[19] Once Chavismo is united with its broader roots in Bolivarianism, however, its socialist credentials become more apparent: goals included the establishment of South American economic and political sovereignty (anti-imperialism), elimination of corruption, encouragement of working class participation via popular votes (participatory democracy), and equitable distribution of natural resources.[20] From a historical standpoint, both Chávez and FARC sought to correct centuries of injustice; the former desired the reestablishment of a united pan-American state comparable to Simon Bolivar’s Gran Colombia in the 1800s, while the latter opted for a Colombia ruled by collectivized labor.

It is an especially notable point of similarity that these ideologies shared a belief in popular revolution. Under the leadership of key FARC commanders including Raul Reyes and Manuel Marulanda Vélez, Venezuela founded the Bolivarian Continental Coordinator (CCB),[21] an organization whose “primary stated purpose [is] to militarily support the Venezuelan revolution and contribute to the struggle against . . . the United States and its ‘moribund capitalist system.’”[22] In a 2005 presentation to Venezuela’s National Armed Forces, Chávez further detailed his vision of future warfare against imperialist entities.[23] “Fourth-generation war” (4GW), as it became known, emphasized the creation of an anti-American “super-insurgency.” [24] Under 4GW, asymmetric conflict and small people’s militias interspersed within populations reigned supreme, as did the usage of low-tech weapons to wage a war of moral—rather than military—strength against a potential US invasion.[25] An army of the people in Chávez’s eyes, FARC became a key political ally in the CCB as well as a prime example of an asymmetrical fighting force.

Ideological complicity, though important, was not enough to account for Chávez’s support of FARC from 2002 to 2010. Instead, a more macroscopic look at the time period reveals inherently practical motivations for his actions. Demonstrably supportive of realpolitik, Chávez recognized the importance of gaining something, whether regional influence or strategic advantage, from his efforts.[26] He gradually came to see FARC as a vessel to realize subversive actions against imperialism. Pro-American Colombia, which he berated as a proxy force of American imperialism, became a natural target for destabilization. Chávez’s tactic—a natural extension of the David and Goliath complex he held toward the United States—served the ultimate goal of converting Colombia from a strategic US partner to an anti-imperialist ally.

Equally advantageous was the element of plausible deniability that FARC afforded Chávez. Traditionally, supporting a non-state actor allows a state sponsor to shroud its actions with a façade of ignorance. As relations with Colombia continued to devolve in the mid-2000s, Chávez and his top advisers recognized the strategic importance of turning a blind eye to FARC and denying involvement with the guerrillas on the global stage, while nonetheless offering them tacit support. In several instances, FARC leaders perceived Venezuela’s complex diplomatic game as a duplicitous one: a 2007 email exchange between military commander Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas (“Mono Jojoy”) and another high-level commander characterized Chávez as a “deceitful and divisive president who lacked the resolve to organize himself politically and militarily.”[27]

FARC’s historic ties with Colombian drug cartels and arms traffickers added potential economic incentives to Venezuelan support. The true extent of state complicity in FARC trafficking operations, however, is debatable. With some exceptions, the highest echelons of Chávez’s administration supported antidrug operations in and out of the public sphere; by 2007, Venezuela had become the world’s fourth largest confiscator of trafficked drugs. Between 1999-2010, Venezuela’s national anti-drugs bureau, Oficina Nacional Antidroga (ONA), seized over 500 metric tons of cocaine, the equivalent to roughly a year’s worth of production.[28] Although a significant body of conservative scholarship correctly posits that Venezuela’s net exportation of cocaine and other drugs nearly quadrupled from 2004-2007,[29] it remains difficult to tie the increased flow of drugs to an unchecked financial motive for Chávez and his cabinet. A more likely explanation for the drug surge is that Chávez’s administration was selectively lenient with drug seizure operations to maintain positive relations with FARC and preserve their strategic fighting capabilities in the broader Bolivarian cause.

Hence, economic incentives are not necessarily as significant in that they were not motivators of state support insomuch as drivers of individual corruption. Unlike the ideological and strategic advantages of supporting FARC, the prospect of financial gain was individualistic. In a notable scandal that began in 2010, a Syrian-born Venezuelan drug trafficker named Walid Makled opted for extradition to the United States after being detained in Colombia.[30] After Makled gave up names of Venezuelan civilians, military officials, and FARC operatives on his payroll during his decades-long operation, Venezuela retreated diplomatically and asserted its “firm commitment to fighting drugs.”[31] A minor purge ensued in Chávez’s administration as it worked to cleanse itself from individuals involved in the scandal.[32] The takeaway from the Makled incident is that the interests of a state cannot be confused with those of an individual, and that it is important to make such distinctions when identifying key motivations for state support. The initial assertion that financial gain was not an important factor can now be further nuanced: although economic considerations are not as significant in explaining state support as FARC’s ideological parity and strategic importance to the Venezuelan government, they are appropriate justifications for incidents of support at the individual level.


The assertion that Venezuela had strong reasons for supporting FARC, though accurate, necessitates a more detailed discussion on the specific methods that constituted state support. Moreover, a significant body of existing media and scholarship tends to portray Venezuela’s sponsorship efforts as monolithic—a combination of open borders, monetary payments, arms transactions, diplomatic relations, military training, and public defenses. This view has disturbingly survived and perpetuated itself.

On one hand, it is difficult to deny that FARC enjoyed most, if not all, of the aforementioned benefits from Venezuela at some point. The most compelling evidence supporting this view originated in the morning of March 1, 2008, when Colombian military forces raided a FARC encampment approximately one mile inside sovereign Ecuadorean territory. Among the FARC casualties was Raúl Reyes, a top FARC military commander and Secretariat member. The Reyes operation, a de facto act of war against Ecuador, created an international incident and subsequent emergency meetings in the Organization of American States (OAS). Chávez quickly denounced the violations of sovereignty and attacks on his guerrilla allies, proclaimed that Uribe’s decision “could be the start of a war in South America,” and preemptively mobilized troops to the Colombian border.[33] As part of the raid, Colombian authorities seized three laptop computers from Reyes’s compound, each containing hundreds of gigabytes of information. What seemed like another instance of Chávez defending FARC turned far more serious when the Colombian government uncovered secret communications between FARC and high-ranking Venezuelan officials. An INTERPOL report released in May confirmed the authenticity of the laptop data.[34]

The Reyes files contained numerous examples of active and passive support[35] for FARC: since the early 2000s, the Venezuelan government had funded an office in Caracas and allowed the group to “use Venezuelan territory for refuge, cross-border operations and political activity”; had enlisted the help of both Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, the second most important member of Venezuela’s National Intelligence Directorate (Disip), and Freddy Bernal, the former mayor of the municipality of Libertador, in contacting and sustaining relations with FARC[36]; had permitted senior officials such as Rodrigo Granda, Marin Arango (“Iván Marquez”), and Rodrigo London “Timochenko” Echeverry to move freely in Venezuela; had promised surface-to-air missile systems and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS); and had offered over $300 million in monetary assistance.[37] Only $50 million of the promised funds had been paid by 2007, spurring a remark from Manuel Marulanda that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”[38]

The same Reyes files, however, also painted an entirely different picture of Venezuelan support. A 2011 analysis by the Institute of International Strategic Studies noted that Chávez “was ready to put relations with FARC on the back burner or even act against FARC interests” when necessary.[39] In November 2002, for instance, FARC asked Chávez for permission to transport supplies through Venezuelan territory. The Venezuelan Army granted it permission yet proceeded to ambush the convoy, seize eight FARC operatives, and deliver them to Colombia in exchange for a marginal improvement in relations with Alvaro Uribe and the United States. Similarly, Venezuelan troops arrested FARC operative Rodrigo Granda in 2004 and extradited him to Colombia for trial.[40] Until 2008, instances of Venezuela acting decisively against FARC were nonetheless few and far between, and good relations among parties had permeated interactions for a decade, notwithstanding several drug seizure campaigns and small-scale FARC extraditions.

Even between 2002 and 2007, the period of greatest Venezuelan-FARC cooperation, state sponsorship cannot be adequately explained by a blanket list of methods. The ebb and flow of Venezuelan support suggest that the types and quantities of aid were subject to larger geopolitical factors and strategic objectives. In a 2011 statement to the United States Senate, terrorism expert and scholar Douglas Farah summarized several types of active and passive support Venezuela had offered FARC at different points since 1998:

[A] relationship between non‐state and state actors provides numerous benefits to both. In Latin America, for example, the FARC gains access to Venezuelan territory without fear of reprisals; it gains access to Venezuelan identification documents; and, perhaps most importantly, access to routes for exporting cocaine to Europe and the United States—while using the same routes to import quantities of sophisticated weapons and communications equipment. In return, the Chávez government offers state protection, and reaps rewards in the form of financial benefits for individuals . . .[41]

Farah went on to link the Venezuelan government to FARC funding and training operations in concert with other international terrorist organizations such as ETA, IRA, and Hezbollah.[42] Perhaps the most useful takeaway from his remarks is that successful state–non-state interactions must be mutually beneficial. When Chávez perceived the net benefits of aiding FARC as fewer in number than those reaped from acting against the guerrillas (as was the case with the 2002 supply transport) he would not hesitate to act in the best interests of his country.

The period from 2008-2010 was in many ways the beginning of the end for FARC’s safe haven in Venezuela. While the Venezuelan government continued to maintain productive relations with FARC (evidenced primarily by Venezuela’s mediatory role in a new round of FARC-Colombia negotiations), public tension increased notably. Over the course of several months in 2008, Chávez became especially critical of FARC. After brokering the release of Colombian vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and former congresswoman Consuelo González, Chávez condemned FARC’s use of kidnapping and extortion as illegitimate revolutionary tactics.[43] This measure came only months after the Ecuadorean crisis of March 1, 2008, and after he had declared that FARC was a “real army that occupies territory in Colombia” instead of a terrorist organization.[44] Later reports revealed that FARC maintained as many as 1500 guerrillas and 28 encampments in the Venezuelan border regions of Apure and Zulia between 2008-2009, a sign of either continued state support or deliberate indifference.[45]

Decline of Relations (20102012)

Although Chávez’s public support for FARC began to falter in the latter half of 2008, passive support demonstrably continued. On one hand, significant political pressure in 2008 and 2009 forced Chávez, at the very least, to distance himself rhetorically from FARC. Yet pressure alone was not enough to account for Venezuela’s increasing resistance to the guerrillas. Aside from negative international scrutiny, 2010 saw significant setbacks in FARC leadership and structure as well as a new Colombian president. When examined, it is a more appropriate time period in which to situate a turning point in state sponsorship.

There are three primary reasons why Chávez’s administration gradually stopped aiding and abetting FARC operations between 2010 and 2012: one, international scrutiny; two, political rapprochement between Venezuela and Colombia; and third, a weakened FARC unable to accomplish Chávez’s political and ideological goals

The Andean crisis in Ecuador marked the beginning of the end for Chávez’s strategy of deliberate denial. Faced with an all but insurmountable body of evidence linking FARC members, weapons, and matériel to his administration, Chávez was catapulted to ignominy in much of the international community. Western European powers increasingly perceived Venezuela’s underprotected borders and paramilitary-controlled towns as embarrassments to Venezuelan sovereignty. Between 2006-2007, Colombian military operations seized Swedish-made AT-4 launchers traced to Venezuelan purchasers and sparked a tense diplomatic exchange with Stockholm.[46] Colombian intelligence reports released during Alvaro Uribe’s final months in office, furthermore, had found that key guerrilla leaders such as ELN’s Giraldo Quinchia and FARC’s Noe Suarez “Grannobles” Rojas were known to operate comfortably in dozens of Venezuelan border regions. In 2010, the ordinarily mild Organization of American States released a scathing 300-page report presenting compelling evidence of Venezuelan complicity with foreign terrorist operatives training in FARC camps, prompting the US to debate adding Venezuela to the Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. By 2011, the international community had grown accustomed to Chávez’s bombastic denials—no longer would stories of “cheap propaganda films from the American government” suffice to justify outbreaks of highly incriminating news. When compounded, the body of accusations and evidence linking FARC with the “terrorist haven” of Venezuela made international diplomatic pressure a significant anti-FARC motivator.[47]

Unlike the international pressure exerted on Chávez that lasted for years, improved diplomatic relations with Colombia were an entirely new development in the period between 2010-2012. As Alvaro Uribe’s second presidential term came to a close in 2010, his successor opted for a less confrontational stance with Venezuela. Elected in May, President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón kept up Uribe’s hard stance against FARC and other Colombian paramilitaries, simultaneously nurturing closer cooperation with his “Latin American colleague” to the east.[48] Though Chávez recognized that to cooperate with Colombia meant he would be forging ties with an imperialist sympathizer, realpolitik once again overcame Bolivarian doctrine—both sides were well aware of the political and economic stability that diplomacy might accord. A recent report from the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) identified the main incentives to a bilateral relationship:

Before relations between the two countries began to sour (again) . . . trade had reached an  all-time high of $7 billion per year. In the year after the break in relations, until the election of Santos, annual trade plunged to about $1 billion. While there is a significant trade imbalance between the two countries—Venezuela imports far more from Colombia than vice versa—both countries depend on this trade . . . [I]t is probably fair to assume that the Colombian government also sees Venezuela as an issue of [border] security that    needs to be neutralized either by threats of force or by engagement. In contrast to Uribe, it seems that Santos has decided for the latter approach.[49]

Aside from benefitting both parties involved, diplomatic relations with Colombia shifted the focus of Chávez’s administration decisively away from FARC. Chávez, vocally critical of certain FARC tactics since 2008, went on to expand his role in anti-violence talks and hostage releases; conciliatory gestures permeated interactions with Colombia and contributed to the greatest drop in active and passive Venezuelan support FARC had seen in years.[50] As a gesture of cooperation, Venezuelan and Colombian intelligence forces began to plan and execute joint search-and-destroy operations targeting insurgent camps along the border. In the spring of 2011, Venezuelan authorities detained Joaquín Pérez, a senior FARC operative, and Nilson “Tulio” Teran Ferreira, a key ELN chief, deporting both to Colombia.[51] Later that year, Chávez enacted a comprehensive law against organized crime and terrorist financing, admitting that officials in his administration had at times worked with Colombian guerrillas “behind Venezuela’s back.” In response, Santos reciprocated his colleague’s gesture: when a scathing report on the Reyes files was released in 2010, Santos demonstrated “no great alarm or outrage” over Venezuela’s past transgressions.[52]

In April of 2012, Santos offered significant praise to the Venezuelan government by announcing that Venezuela was “entirely free of FARC camps and units.”[53] For the sake of political pleasantries, Santos’s announcement contradicted compelling suspicions that FARC commander-in-chief Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño and vice-commander Luciano Marin Arango (alias “Ivan Marquez”) continued to operate material and medical operations in Venezuela under the auspices of corrupt government officials.[54] From a strategic standpoint, it is unlikely that Venezuela halted FARC operations within its borders or cut off all friendly relations after 2010. Santos’s remarks and Chávez’s consequential actions against the FARC instead suggest that guerrilla support eroded at the state level yet likely persisted individually. As much control as Chávez claimed to have over his officials, it would have been impossible to prevent unilateral actions from radicalized or corrupt members within his socialist bureaucracy. In his evaluation on Venezuelan security, Daniel Hellinger confirms this viewpoint, noting that “any actions or communications by Venezuelan officials, even high ones, did not necessarily have the endorsement of Chávez, the ultimate arbiter of state interest.”[55]

Venezuela-Colombia relations aside, increased setbacks in FARC’s military and political strength from 2010-2012 meant that Chávez could no longer rely on the group to further his regional aims. In a matter of years, Colombian operations had whittled FARC’s strength from over 20,000 men and women during 2002 to a historic low of 9,000 at end of Uribe’s presidency. Though impossible to fully decapitate, FARC had suffered the nearly total loss of its powerful founding generation over a four-year period: in 2008, Manuel Marulanda died from a heart attack and a successful Colombian military operation freed key political prisoners including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. A Colombian operation also resulted in the 2010 death of Mono Jojoy, and a similar operation in 2011 killed Alfonso Cano, one of the few remaining FARC commanders with ties to the group’s beginnings.[56] Beleaguered yet aware of its residual political strength, FARC requested comprehensive peace talks with the Colombian government in the latter half of 2011. To Chávez, however, the calls for peace also represented a subtle show of weakness—a sign that FARC’s utility as a viable military force had diminished. Venezuela-brokered negotiations culminated in the “General Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace,” a comprehensive military truce agreement signed by all parties in the summer of 2012.[57]

In light of diplomatic efforts with Colombia, increasingly ineffective and militarily weakened guerrillas, and pressure from the international stage, supporting FARC became strategically imprudent for Chávez’s administration. No longer did the group have the power to further Venezuela’s political aims—let alone its own—FARC’s ideological parity with Bolivarianism was not enough to overcome the tolls that international criticism and sour relations with Colombia had taken on Chávez. To this day, unilateral decisions by corrupt or sympathetic officials continue to provide passive support for FARC in the form of borders that are not policed; however, Chavez’s administration came to dismiss FARC as little more than an expendable tool of Venezuelan statecraft. Chávez, hardly the “steadfast ally of leftism” Western media and scholars alike had portrayed him to be, recognized FARC’s increasingly distant role in his own grand strategy. “The era of the traditional Latin American guerrilla,” Chávez would later proclaim, “was over.”[58]

The Present and Future of Venezuelan Sponsorship (2013)

The death of Hugo Chávez Frias on March 5, 2013, took the international stage by surprise. His increasingly precarious health condition, the details of which remain a well-guarded state secret to this day, sparked a period of significant sociopolitical unrest within Venezuelan society. The presently tense nature of a post-Chavist Venezuela makes assessing future links between Venezuela and FARC an especially risky and uncertain endeavor.

Riding a wave of populist support and a powerful sympathy vote, Chávez’s handpicked Nicolás Maduro defeated the opposition’s right-centrist candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski in an April 2013 interim presidential election. Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) gained a much narrower margin of victory over Capriles’ Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD)—a slim 1.83 percent—than that predicted by the majority of international spectators. The election results presented an especially troubling outcome for Maduro, a visible step down from Chávez’s 55 percent to 45 percent victory over Capriles in the October 2012 elections.[59]

Subsequent challenges to electoral legitimacy threw entire cities into protest and galvanized an increasingly bold opposition movement under the direction of Capriles. As allegations of widespread voter fraud and poll intimidation propagated, many of them deemed false by international auditors and a nationwide vote recount, the inexperienced Maduro was left with widespread social and economic challenges, the most pressing of which was the search for stability and political recognition in a fundamentally divided society.[60] Since the elections, uniting his own support base has continued to pose a challenge for Maduro, as have been his efforts to demonstrate allegiance to the rigid Chavist doctrines under which he was elected.

Within the Venezuelan populace, tensions with Maduro’s leadership style have called the very future of the Chavist movement into question. Recent reports of politically-motivated terrorism on both sides are especially troubling and highlight the gravity of a divided Venezuela.[61] Maduro’s administration is now at a critical juncture: he must work to sustain the allegiance of influential Chavist loyalists such as Diosdado Cabello, quell increasingly bold demonstrations led by opposition figures, and simultaneously tackle the scores of economic and social problems left unresolved by his predecessor—the same issues that nearly ended Chávez’s presidency in 2002.

Consequentially, Venezuela’s current circumstances present numerous difficulties in predicting the scope and degree of future state support for FARC. More specifically, it is difficult to ascertain Maduro’s political ideologies, leadership style, and ability to control vestigial authoritarian Chavist policies mere months into his presidency. Aware of this uncertainty, FARC recently began seeking closer alliances with other leftist Colombian insurgencies. By the summer of 2013, FARC and its former enemy ELN (Colombia’s second largest guerrilla movement numbering approximately 5,000) had proposed increased codependence: both advocated for each other in peace talks, conducted joint operations along the Venezuelan border with increasing frequency, and reconciled their different interpretations of Marxist-Leninist ideology. In response, the Colombian government employed measures to keep the guerrillas separated and extended positive diplomatic relations to Maduro’s new administration.[62]

The future of Venezuela is now as unpredictable as that of FARC itself. Corruption remains widespread among government officials, many of whom turn a blind eye to guerrillas and organized criminal activity largely for personal economic benefit. A “well-known” FARC payment office based in Arauca that collects extortion payments from Apure, for instance, is widely suspected of operating under the payroll of several regional Venezuelan officials.[63] Maduro’s government, moreover, has recently shown interest in improving relations with the United States, yet regularly accuses the Obama administration of imperialist destabilization in Venezuela and resists US demands for increased compliance with international arms purchasing agreements and DEA-sponsored anti-FARC operations.[64]

Maduro’s presidency now stands in a precarious balance between potentially improved relations with the United States and the need to fill the Bolivarian void Chávez left behind. As Maduro strives to consolidate power within a divided PSUV and forge new solutions to Chávez-era problems, it is unlikely that Venezuela will adhere to the United States’ strict demands for counterterrorist and counterdrug measures in the short run. Even so, relations with Colombia have remained largely positive, with the exception of a brief flare-up when Juan Manuel Santos agreed to meet with Capriles shortly after his defeat. Since the incident, Venezuela has agreed to return as a mediator in guerrilla peace talks.[65]

Assuming that Venezuela remains stable enough for Maduro to stay in power, there are several potential scenarios for interactions with FARC over the next three to five years. One possibility is that Maduro, in an attempt to bolster his credibility as the true heir of the Bolivarian Revolution, steps up guerrilla support to pre-2008 levels. For these same reasons, however, it is also possible that Maduro may maintain the status quo and follow Chávez’s policies before his death. Such an approach would involve a continued presence in Colombian peace negotiations, little to no active state support for FARC, and few crackdowns on corrupt government officials. A third possibility is that Maduro’s administration may become more moderate, improve relations with the United States, and adopt more expansive countermeasures against guerrilla fronts and internal corruption.

The most probable outcome for future Venezuela-FARC relations, however, is the one that promises maximal political stability: preserving the status quo. The mixture of rejecting US involvement, cooperating with Colombia, and turning an occasional blind eye to guerrillas in the border would appease most Chavists and keep moderates at bay. At the same time, such a policy would ensure continued economic interaction and relative border security between Venezuela and Colombia. In comparison to other potential scenarios, following in Chavez’s footsteps represents the lesser evil.

Although a sharp swing leftward is also a possibility for Maduro, it is unlikely that he would expand FARC support and alienate Venezuela from Colombia and the international stage. In its present state, FARC cannot fight the ideological battles it once waged; hence, supporting the group as Chávez once did carries significant strategic and logical shortcomings. Conversely, a centrist shift during Maduro’s presidency is not entirely inconceivable. If Maduro chooses to expand ties with the United States—as he has hinted at—and take a harder stance against FARC, he would at the very least appease Capriles’s opposition movement as well as most of the international community. In doing so, however, Maduro would almost certainly alienate hardline factions within the PSUV, potentially catalyzing a debilitating conflict over his desire to fulfill Chávez’s vision.

Though educated speculation can be an important political tool, it is equally crucial to note that hypothetical scenarios yield hypothetical predictions. A great many FARC critics now predict that the group will continue to dwindle in size and strength if the Colombian military continues its campaign. As FARC has demonstrated for the past forty years, however, it would be exceedingly foolish to assume that these conditional statements are accurate forecasts for a remarkably resilient and adaptable organization. Since 2012, FARC has increasingly abandoned uniformed tactics in favor of clandestine terrorism, bringing the guerrilla threat ever closer to Colombian homes. Military hit-and-run attacks are giving way to networks of city fighters in civilian clothes. New threats have surfaced, and the Venezuelan and Colombian governments alike must strive to keep them at bay. The future is far from certain.

For over a decade, the international community has tracked Venezuela’s transition into a haven for international terrorists. In 1998, it witnessed the rise of a charismatic socialist ready and willing to oppose the United States. Months ago, it observed a breakdown of his Bolivarian system. Even more recently, it witnessed the birth of an entirely new type of guerrilla insurgency. While one cannot predict what will happen today or tomorrow, one thing is certain: as the complex wheels of Venezuelan politics turn, the world will be watching.

Miguel Goncalves (’16) is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College

Works Cited

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[1] Daniel Hellinger, Global Security Watch: Venezuela (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, 2012), 118.

[2] Based on the political philosophy of John Dewey, the term “organic political system” here refers to a synergistic, evolving body whose interests remain in flux. See Dewey’s 1916 book, Democracy and Education. This definition should not be confused with the Organic Theory of the State, in which state power transcends all other influences.

[3] Hellinger, 36.

[4] Brian A. Nelson, The Silence and the Scorpion: the Coup Against Chávez and the Making of Modern Venezuela (New York: Nation Books, 2009),

[5] David W. Dent, Hot Spot: Latin America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008), 49.

[6] Jens Glüsing, “The Colombian Connection: How Hugo Chavez Courted FARC,” SPIEGEL Nachrichten, <> (accessed July 2, 2013).

[7] Hellinger, 119.

[8] Allan Carías, Dismantling Democracy in Venezuela: the Chávez Authoritarian Experiment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 12.

[9] Ana María Bejarano, Precarious Democracies: Understanding Regime Stability and Change in Colombia and Venezuela (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), 103.

[10] “Correspondencia del FARC con Venezuela,” El Tiempo, < (accessed July 3, 2013)>.

[11] “Blocs” refer to organizational detachments of FARC forces. They are composed of five or more “fronts,” each of which contains one or more “columns.” The chain of command breaks down further: each column contains one or more “companies,” each of which contains at least two “guerrillas” comprised of two twelve-man squadrons.

[12] “Confiscated FARC Files Show Longstanding Ties with Chavez Government,” What’s Next Venezuela?, < (accessed June 25, 2013)>.

[13] Founded in 1964, the National Liberation Army (ELN) is Colombia’s second largest guerrilla movement. Although ideologically similar to the Marxist-Leninist FARC, the group has operated independently in the northern Colombian-Venezuelan border for most of its existence.

[14] Fred Rosen, Empire and Dissent: the United States and Latin America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 60.

[15] Ibid., 62.

[16] Gregory Wilpert, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: the History and Policies of the Chavez Government (London: Verso, 2007), 32.

[17] Thomas Ponniah, The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change Under Chávez. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2011.

[18] Bilal Y. Saab and Alexandra W. Taylor, “Criminality and Armed Groups: A Comparative Study of FARC and Paramilitary Groups in Colombia,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 32, no. 6 (2009), 457-460.

[19] Bejarano, 32.

[20] Saab and Taylor, 456.

[21] The Bolivarian Continental Coordinator was renamed in February 2008 and is now known as the Bolivarian Continental Movement (MCB). An extension of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela, which evolved from Chávez’s original MVR, the organization’s present purpose remains the same.

[22] Pablo O’Brien, “Confirmado: la Coordinadora Continental Bolivariana es un Organo de las FARC,” El Comercio Perú, <> (accessed June 23, 2013).

[23] Douglas Farah, “Chavez’s Abrupt About-face on the FARC,” Farah Blog, <> (accessed June 23, 2013).

[24] Max G. Manwaring, and Edwin G. Corr, Insurgency, Terrorism, and Crime: Shadows from the Past and Portents for the Future (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 28.

[25] Max G. Manwaring, Gangs, Pseudo-militaries, and Other Modern Mercenaries: New Dynamics in Uncomfortable Wars (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 164.

[26] Ibid., 165.

[27] Simon Romero, “Venezuela Asked FARC to Kill Opposition Figures, Analysis Shows,” The New York Times, <> (accessed July 2, 2013).

[28] El País, “El narcotráfico penetra en Venezuela,” El País Edición América. <> (accessed July 1, 2013).

[29] Ray Walser, “State Sponsors of Terrorism: Time to Add Venezuela to the List,” The Heritage Foundation, <> (accessed July 2, 2013).

[30] Daniel Byman, Deadly Connections: States That Sponsor Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 82.

[31] Hellinger, 112.

[32] Ibid., 98.

[33] Fred Rosen, Empire and Dissent: the United States and Latin America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 101.

[34] CNN, “Colombia: FARC arms traced to Venezuela,” CNN International, <> (accessed June 25, 2013).

[35] “Active support” is defined here as “a deliberate regime decision to provide critical support to a terrorist group, typically in the form of weapons, money, or media support.” “Passive support” refers to “when a regime’s deliberate inaction allows terrorist groups to flourish.” See Byman, 1-48.

[36] The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of ‘Raúl Reyes’ (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011), 32.

[37] <>.

[38] The FARC Files, 47.

[39] <>.

[40] <>.

[41] Douglas Farah, “Testimony of Douglas Farah,” Iran’s Influence and Activity in Latin America, United States Senate.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Reuters, “Hugo Chavez tells Colombian rebels to stop kidnapping,” Reuters Online, <> (accessed July 3, 2013).

[44] Helen Murphy, “Chavez Calls FARC a ‘Real Army’ Worthy of Respect,” Bloomberg News, <> (accessed June 25, 2013).

[45] InSight, “FARC in Venezuela,” InSight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas, <> (accessed July 1, 2013).

[46] Aurel Croissant and Daniel Barlow, “Following The Money Trail: Terrorist Financing And Government Responses,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30, no. 2 (2007), 132-134.

[47] Ibid., 136.

[48] Ponniah, 188.

[49] Gregory Wilpert, “Making Sense of Colombia-Venezuela Relations,” North American Congress on Latin America, <> (accessed June 24, 2013).

[50] Ibid.

[51] U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2012 Western Hemisphere Overview,” <> (accessed June 28, 2013).

[52] Hellinger, 114.

[53] Ibid., 118.

[54] Geoffrey Ramsey, “FARC, ELN Use Venezuela as Base for Attacks: Report,” InSight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas, <> (accessed June 26, 2013).

[55] Hellinger, 116.

[56] Stephanie Hanson, “FARC, ELN: Colombia’s Left-Wing Guerrillas,” Council on Foreign Relations, < (accessed June 22, 2013)>.

[57] Courtney Scott, “Text of deal between Colombia’s government and rebel group FARC to end armed conflict,” Colombia Reports, <> (accessed June 27, 2013).

[58] Hellinger, 133.

[59] <>.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Charlie Devereux, “Maduro Vows to Stop Political Protests in Venezuela as Seven Die,” Bloomberg, <> (accessed July 2, 2013).

[62] Hellinger, 132.

[63] Reina Lucía Valencia, “Arauca: el gran fortín del ELN,” Inicio, <> (accessed June 24, 2013).

[64] Eva Golinger, Bush versus Chávez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008), 177.

[65] Bloomberg, July 2, 2013.