Venezuela: Relations with Colombia Worsen

Article excerpt

By Andres Gaudin

The immediate fallout from the US-Colombia military agreement giving the US access to seven Colombian bases--naval, land, and air--was the cooling of relations between Venezuela and Colombia to their lowest level ever. Tensions continue to escalate, worrying the rest of the region and the Organization of American States (OAS). The first consequences were economic and hit Colombia hard. In addition to having its export-flow frozen, it lost the subsidized fuel that Venezuela provides to help Colombians in the towns along the vast 2,216-km shared boarder. Within weeks, trade sanctions were deteriorating into denunciations of conspiracies, sabotage, and even the killing of alleged paramilitaries in Venezuelan territory. With an eye on agents from the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), the intelligence service that reports directly to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sent 15,000 troops to the critical areas and told the military and the civilian population to prepare for war.

Experts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were quoted by Agence France-Presse saying that the Colombian economy could enter a period of contraction as a result of the drop in trade with Venezuela. The government Direccion de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacionales (DIAN) said that Colombian exports to Venezuela had fallen an unprecedented 71% from October 2008 to October of this year. In July, after the agreement with the US regarding the bases became known, Venezuela froze diplomatic and trade relations, the effects of which began to be felt in September and exploded in October.

While the trade cutoff affects a wide range of sectors--light industry, textiles, leather, inputs for medicines, cosmetics, paper products, and practically everything related to foodstuffs--the biggest hit is to the automotive industry. The 10,000 units that Colombia was to ship to Venezuela, including public-transport vehicles, utility vehicles, family cars, trucks, and tow trucks, were sent instead to Argentina.

But that was not all. Saying, "We are not willing to continue subsidizing the Colombian economy when on their side they make unfriendly decisions affecting our people," Venezuelan Minister of Energy and Oil Rafael Ramirez announced on Aug. 19 the freezing of the agreement to provide 4.5 million gallons of fuel per month to the Colombian departments of La Guajira and Santander along the border with Venezuela. Colombia was paying US$1.50 a gallon, well below the US$3.50 a gallon that it cost away from the border area.

Following a series of increasingly strident statements, the first 10 days of November marked the high point in an escalation to which analysts still see no end. On Nov. 7, after Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said that the US-Colombia military agreement was "the most shameful that has ever been signed in the history of our continent," the Venezuelan government dispatched 15,000 soldiers to critical spots along the border with Colombia.

Maduro said that the purpose of the installation of US military bases in Colombia "is to establish control and domination of Colombian territory to later implement a strategy of fear, threats, and military aggression against the liberation processes in the region 200 years after its independence" (referring to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela).

That same day, the government in Caracas announced the deportation of 90 Colombian citizens, a measure not taken in years. Simultaneously, various border-crossing posts were closed to impede the passage of "pimpineros" (fuel smugglers) and maleteros (people who make their living bringing merchandise from one side of the border to the other).

On Nov. 8, Chavez somberly told the military and civilian population to "prepare for war." After warning US President Barack Obama not to "make the mistake of ordering an overt aggression against Venezuela, using Colombia as a base from which to launch an invasion," the Venezuelan president spoke to the troops. …