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COLOMBIA-VENEZUELA: Possibly the Bitterest Conflict in a Century

Humberto Márquez *

CARACAS, Nov 26 2007 (IPS) - The neighbouring countries of Colombia and Venezuela, whose governments have the most diametrically opposed ideologies in South America, have come within a whisker of breaking off relations after a harsh exchange of accusations between Presidents Álvaro Uribe and Hugo Chávez.

The confrontation escalated rapidly since Wednesday, when Uribe "fired" Chávez from his role as a mediator seeking a humanitarian agreement between Bogotá and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to exchange hostages held by the insurgents for imprisoned guerrillas.

Chávez said the move was "a spit in the face," and that Uribe was "an unworthy president." He accused him of lying and of "not wanting the war in Colombia to end," and announced he was putting bilateral relations "in the freezer."

"What I have said is very serious. Messrs. Ministers, Messrs. Generals, be on the alert. Economic and trade relations, Colombian companies in our country and our businesses over there, will all suffer," said the Venezuelan president.

Uribe replied by claiming that Chávez was "not interested in peace in Colombia, but rather that Colombia be a victim of a terrorist FARC government. We do not need people who legitimise terrorism."

"If you are spreading an expansionist project on the continent, in Colombia this project will make no headway," Uribe told Chávez. "You can’t bully the continent and set it on fire as you do, speaking against Spain one day, against the United States the next, being rude to Mexico another day, Peru the next and Bolivia the following morning."

"The first casualty of this conflict is the South American integration project, with its Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Bank of the South. Needless to say, the possible reentry of Venezuela to the Andean Community (made up of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru) is now out of the question," former Venezuelan deputy foreign minister and political analyst Fernando Gerbasi told IPS.

"But Chávez’s gravest words were his call to the generals to be on the alert, which sounds like confining all troops to barracks in readiness for action, and the Colombian military will take that in all seriousness also," said Gerbasi, who served as ambassador to Colombia from 1990-1992 and 1997-2000.

Former Venezuelan foreign and defence minister Fernando Ochoa (1991-1993) said that "since perhaps the early 20th century, we have not had an episode of tension like this. There have always been stresses and strains, but the presidents always tried to stay on the margins, whereas now they are in the ring, and the honour and dignity of their countries are in there with them."

In 1901 there were skirmishes between both countries’ troops when Venezuelan President Cipriano Castro (1899-1908) assisted liberal Colombian insurgent Rafael Uribe Uribe at the border.

In 1987 the countries were on the verge of armed conflict because the Colombian missile-bearing corvette Caldas anchored in the Gulf of Venezuela, which Colombia considers not to have been demarcated yet, but Caracas claims as its own.

"But that was a situation that escalated gradually, whereas this crisis has struck like lightning, and could lead to further incidents unless other governments, like Brazil’s, intervene rapidly to calm things down," Gerbasi said.

In January 2005, Chávez and Uribe clashed after Colombian agents kidnapped Rodrigo Granda, the FARC’s "foreign minister", in Caracas and handed him over to Colombian authorities at the border, but the presidents did not exchange insults as they have now done.

Former Colombian president Ernesto Samper (1994-1998) called the present crisis "an extremely grave situation," and former foreign minister Rodrigo Pardo maintained that "the FARC are to blame for the whole incident, because they didn’t keep their promises. Everyone knew that Chávez would use risky methods in his role as mediator, which would sooner or later exasperate Uribe."

Chávez arrived in France on Nov. 20 without having obtained solid proof of life from the FARC for French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt, nor for any of the other hostages, and he complained about the difficulties Uribe had put in the way of his meetings with guerrilla commanders.

Uribe called off Chávez’s participation in seeking a prisoner-hostage swap after the Venezuelan leader spoke briefly by telephone with Colombian army chief General Mario Montoya. Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba had called Montoya and passed the receiver over to Chávez.

According to Bogotá, Chávez broke his word on agreed working methods, which expressly forbade him to talk to Colombian military commanders. But according to the Venezuelan government, Uribe used this as a spurious pretext to abort the ongoing negotiations.

On either side of the border there is concern about the possible economic impact of such an abrupt end to the friendship between the two presidents, which was perhaps always more pretence than reality.

Bilateral trade came to about four billion dollars in 2006, and this year may reach between five and six billion dollars. The trade balance favours Colombia, which up to August 2007 had exported goods worth 2.76 billion dollars to Venezuela.

"I think the rhetoric has reached its peak, and what is called for now are attempts at reconciliation and the restoration of normality. Let’s hope concord will prevail, and that relations are not broken off," said María Luisa Chiappe, head of the Colombian-Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, in Bogotá.

Between Táchira, in southwestern Venezuela, and Norte de Santander, in northeastern Colombia, is the busiest section of the border between the two Andean nations in terms of trade and employment. IPS was able to confirm the extent of anxiety that further escalation of the spat might increase difficulties for trade and supplies in that area.

Venezuela buys food, leather and textiles from Colombia, and Colombia buys fuel and agrochemical products from Venezuela. Small traders who make a living from the price differentials of some of these goods are among those most concerned about the crisis.

The owner of a shop in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, told IPS that "Chávez is crazy" because of the way he ranted at Uribe. But a street vendor at a juice stand regretted that the negotiations, "which were going well," were cut short.

On the other hand, "pimpineros", who smuggle jerry cans of gasoline across the border from Venezuela to Colombia, reckon that the conflict will not affect their business in the least.

Meanwhile, in Bogotá demonstrations in support of Uribe are being organised, and Venezuelan politicians infer that Chávez’s followers will do the same in Caracas. This will affect the climate leading up to the Dec. 2 referendum, when Venezuelans will vote on a major overhaul of the constitution.

"We know Chávez, and he’s a consummate politician. Freezing relations with Colombia is a manoeuvre related to the referendum, because opinion polls show that he could lose," said Teodoro Petkoff, a former presidential candidate and editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual.

In the heat of his controversy with Uribe on Sunday, Chávez said that relations between Venezuela and Spain would also remain "frozen" until King Juan Carlos apologises for interrupting him at the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, Chile, saying, "why don’t you shut up?"

* With additional reporting from Constanza Viera in Cúcuta, Colombia.

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