Colombia-Venezuela: Border Tensions Rise

The escalating war of words between the governments of Venezuela and Colombia over the deteriorating security conditions along their shared 1,375-mile border risks transforming Colombia’s civil war into an international conflict. Commentators on both sides of the border expressed mounting anxiety that the beleaguered Venezuelan regime of President Hugo Chávez would exploit the volatile security environment to distract attention from the domestic opposition’s campaign to force a recall referendum in August.

“It is characteristic of this government to blame the rest for what it has done, what it is doing, and what it is thinking of doing,” columnist Adolfo Taylhardat wrote in El Universal (April 9), a leading Caracas daily harshly critical of the Chávez regime. Citing the irony that the organizer of a previous failed coup now seeks to paint his political opponents as coup plotters, Taylhardat argued that this “tactic of attempting to turn a lie into truth...also serves as an instrument of foreign policy. According to [Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente] Rangel, Colombia is the cause of all our ills because it has ‘vacated the border to permit all the illegal activity present there: guerrillas, drug trafficking, paramilitaries, and common crime.’ ”

Tensions mounted after the government of Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe launched an investigation into claims that in March Venezuelan air force planes bombed a Colombian paramilitary force during a battle with guerrillas waged within Colombian territory, El Universal reported (April 10). Ignoring the Uribe administration’s assertion that it had reached no conclusions on the incident, Rangel denounced the allegation as “a grotesque lie on the part of the Colombian authorities that forms part of their arsenal of lies.”

Relations between Caracas and Bogotá have long been strained by Colombian suspicions that the Chávez regime provides safe haven and material assistance to leftist guerrillas in the border region. Bogotá’s centrist El Tiempo (March 31) noted that Rangel in turn questioned whether Colombians’ “silence” about expanded operations of the right-wing AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) in the border region suggests that “the paramilitaries enjoy a suspicious protection on the other side of the border.”

El Tiempo (April 7) expressed cautious optimism that a planned summit meeting of Uribe and Chávez on April 23 would defuse diplomatic tensions and pave the way for gradual recovery in the two economies’ previously strong trade relations, which have collapsed in the wake of a prolonged oil workers’ strike and deepening recession in Venezuela. “Commercial relations are undergoing a most profound crisis,” El Tiempo observed. Official data for January showed that “Colombian exports to Venezuela fell by 71.8 percent, a veritable free fall....The situation is grave, because the bilateral exchange since the free-trade agreement was signed in 1992 has been critical for both nations.”

“The compelling interests of both regimes could help to establish common ground for agreement,” El Tiempo said. “In the end, what Colombia and Venezuela need is a working plan capable of overcoming the...animosities that the present leaders may harbor. For if everything depended on personal chemistry, little could be expected from two presidents...who get on like oil and water.”