COLOMBIA-VENEZUELA: Conflict Heating Up - Again

  • by Humberto Márquez (caracas)
  • Inter Press Service

Washington, meanwhile, is staying out of the fray. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said it is not really the business of the United States.

'We would encourage the two governments to solve these differences by means of dialogue,' he added.

Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza also issued 'a call for dialogue to work things out in a spirit of reconciliation, and to refrain from taking measures that would affect a great number of people.'

Insulza underscored the economic ties between Venezuela and Colombia, the most dynamic in the Andean region, whose bilateral trade amounted to nearly 7.3 billion dollars in 2008 – 6.0 billion of which represented exports by Colombia – generating tens of thousands of jobs.

Relations between Bogota and Caracas have been marked by ups and downs in the second half of this decade. The current impasse began when Colombia announced in mid-July that it would allow five of its military bases to be used by U.S. forces.

'This is aggression against Venezuela. They are hemming us in on our left flank,' Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said at the time, ordering a 'complete review' of ties with Colombia, withdrawing Venezuela's ambassador from Bogotá, and threatening to freeze imports from Colombia and take action against companies from that country operating in Venezuela.

The tension rose further when the Colombian government of Álvaro Uribe said a few days later that three shoulder-fired AT4 grenade launchers sold to Venezuela by Sweden in 1988 – 10 years before Chávez was first elected as president – were confiscated from a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) camp in October 2008.

An Uribe administration statement said that on Jun. 2, Colombian officials discreetly asked the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry for information on the grenade launchers and provided it with a report in which two FARC leaders purportedly stated that the purchase of the weapons had been arranged with three high-level Venezuelan government officials.

On Thursday, the Chávez administration responded with a communiqué in which it expressed its 'indignation over the irresponsibility with which the Colombian government has destroyed efforts to build bilateral relations to the benefit of the people of both nations, jeopardising peace and stability in the region.'

'This new conflict highlights two political poles that have emerged in Latin America, depending on the countries' relations with the United States. And unfortunately for integration and cooperation efforts, Latin Americans are compelled to identify with one pole or the other,' Carlos Romero, director of graduate studies in international relations at Venezuela's Central University, told IPS.

Chávez and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva discussed the latest tiff between Venezuela and Colombia, and the Brazilian leader decided to send his foreign affairs adviser, Marco Aurelio García, to Caracas.

Brazil 'is willing to work to restore trust between Colombia and Venezuela,' said Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim.

At a press conference given with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Lula expressed reservations about U.S. bases operating in Colombia: 'I don't like the idea, but since I wouldn't want anyone sticking their noses into Brazil's affairs, I won't meddle in Colombia's affairs.

'At some point we will have to discuss this with (U.S.) President (Barack) Obama,' said Lula.

Bachelet said she 'fully concurred' with Lula, and added that Colombia's decision 'affects all of the countries (in the region), which are uneasy.' She said the issue will be discussed at the next summit of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), slated for Aug. 10 in Quito.

The meeting in Ecuador could offer an opportunity for reconciliation, similar to what occurred in March 2008 at the Rio Group summit in Santo Domingo, a few days after the Colombian military bombed a FARC camp in northern Ecuador on Mar. 1, killing the insurgent group’s international spokesman, Raúl Reyes, and at least 20 other guerrillas.

In response to the cross-border bombing raid on the rebel camp, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa broke off relations with Bogotá, and Chávez mobilised troops to Venezuela's border with Colombia. A war of words ensued.

But at a summit of leaders of the Rio Group – the main regional policy coordination forum – a few days later, Chávez opened the door to reconciliation, saying 'Let’s stop this. Let’s be cool-headed and act like rational people, because if we continue, this will keep heating up.'

Host President Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic took it from there, calling for hugs, and the week-long political and diplomatic crisis came to an end.

In the latest exchange of verbal broadsides between Venezuela and Colombia, there has been no mention of mobilising troops, but there has been talk of new purchases of weapons. Chávez announced that he would double Venezuela's fleet of tanks with the purchase of new equipment from Russia.

The Venezuelan army has 80 tanks, mainly old French-made AMXs.

The alliance between Venezuela and Russia has aggravated the tension. Colombia, defending its decision to lend bases to the U.S., said it never objected when Venezuela welcomed Russian forces to its territory.

Venezuela replied that Bogotá should define whether it sees Russia as an enemy or aggressor, because Caracas does consider itself the target of hostility from the United States.

In the last five years, Venezuela has bought 4.4 billion dollars in war planes, helicopters, assault rifles and other weapons from Russia.

This week a bilateral agreement expanded that client-supplier relationship to effective cooperation, with technology sharing, joint maneuvers and closer military ties.

According to Romero, the Moscow-Caracas alliance 'is not comparable to the Cold War alliance between Cuba and the ex-Soviet Union, but undoubtedly has an important symbolic meaning' in the context of the current polarisation in the region.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service