Venezuela keeps up war of words with Colombia

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Venezuela stoked a diplomatic feud with Colombia by accusing its South American neighbor of “lies” and “hypocrisy” in a growing dispute that is threatening trade and regional stability.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s government reacted angrily at the weekend when Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez told his army to prepare for war, a comment widely interpreted as rhetoric but one that still raised passions on both sides.

Venezuela says Uribe, a conservative and close ally of Washington, is allowing the US government a dangerous foothold in the region by giving its troops access to Colombia’s military bases.

That, says the socialist Chavez, may be a precursor for invading Venezuela. Chavez is backed by fellow leftist leaders in the region, like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.

Bogota denies the charge, saying the military agreement with Washington exists to combat drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas.

Uribe’s government has urged both the United Nations and the Organization of American States to look into Chavez’s “war threats.”

The spat is unlikely to lead to war, analysts say, but it is fuelling tensions on a volatile 2000-km border where both sides have sent extra troops, and has led to a downturn in the two nations’ $7 billion-a-year bilateral trade.

A statement from Venezuela’s foreign ministry yesterday said the Uribe government’s position was “immoral” and “shows the hypocrisy of the Colombian oligarchy.”

Referring to a 2008 Colombian military raid inside Ecuadorean territory, it added: “The Uribe government lies, it is responsible for the sole act of war in the recent history of our continent.”
“US access to Colombian bases threatens the peace and stability of the continent,” the Venezuelan statement added.

Since Chavez came to power a decade ago, Venezuela and Colombia have had constant ups-and-downs in their relations, with some disputes being solved by a handshake between the presidents.

This latest crisis, analysts say, may be harder to solve, particularly after Chavez’s inflammatory comments last Sunday.

On a live TV event, he ordered his military to prepare for war, just days after sending thousands more soldiers to the border. “Let’s not lose a day in fulfilling our main mission: to prepare for war,” he said.

Some say Chavez is hyping the Colombia issue as a smokescreen to distract from domestic problems like high inflation, and faltering water and power services.
“President Chavez will continue to use every opportunity to stoke up diplomatic tensions and raise the specter of an external enemy to deviate public attention away from Venezuela’s growing economic distortions,” EurasiaGroup analyst Patrick Esteruelas said.

With an eye to parliamentary elections in September 2010, Chavez may also be seeking to “rally up nationalist sentiment,” Esteruelas added in a report on the dispute.

Venezuelans are skeptical the dispute will lead to war.
“When I was in military service at 17 years old, they told me to train for the war with Colombia. Now I’m 67, and they’re still saying the same nonsense!” said Enrique Torres, a retired former army physical education instructor.

Uribe, ironically, may benefit from the dispute to enhance his popularity and a possible re-election bid next year, diplomats and analysts say.

The Colombian leader currently is barred from seeking a third consecutive term, but some of his supporters are seeking to change the country’s constitution to allow him to stand in next year’s election.

Business groups say Colombian imports into Venezuela are being impeded by bureaucratic obstacles that have grown in direct proportion to the escalating political hostilities.

Pic: President Hugo Chaves of Venezuela