President Hugo Chavez recalled his ambassador from Bogota on Tuesday and threatened to halt Colombian imports after the neighboring country said anti-tank weapons found in a rebel arms cache came from Venezuela.
Chavez also said he would sever diplomatic ties completely and
seize control of Colombian-owned businesses "if there's one more
accusation against Venezuela."
The actions ratcheted up tensions between the two countries amid
Chavez's criticism of a pending deal to increase the U.S. military
presence in Colombia, a key Washington ally in the region that has
accused Chavez of helping leftist rebels. Chavez is a strong critic
of U.S. influence in Latin America.
His warning to Colombia stems from President Alvaro Uribe's
complaint over the weekend that anti-tank rocket launchers sold to
Venezuela by Sweden during the 1980s were obtained by Colombia's
main rebel group, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC. Sweden confirmed the weapons originally were
sold to Venezuela's military.
Chavez accused Colombia of acting irresponsibly in the
accusation, saying there is no evidence Venezuela was the source of
"We are not going to accept this irresponsibility,"
Venezuela's socialist leader said.
In Bogota, the Colombian Foreign Ministry's said Uribe and
Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez were traveling outside the country
and would have no comment until they return.
Chavez threatened to halt all trade agreements with Uribe's
government and find new suppliers to replace imports from Colombia.
Venezuela and Colombia share some $6 billion in annual trade.
Among goods imported from Colombia are milk and other food items
that periodically become scarce in Venezuela due to
government-imposed price controls.
"We can get them from any other country," Chavez said.
Chavez also raised the possibility of shutting down a 139-mile
(224-kilometer) pipeline that carries 5.7 million to 8.5 million
cubic meters (200 million to 300 million cubic feet) of natural gas
daily from Colombia to oil installations in western Venezuela.
"The gas that comes from Colombia isn't indispensable for us.
We could shut down that gas pipeline," he said.
Colombian officials have long alleged that Chavez's government
aids the FARC by giving senior rebel leaders refuge and allowing
the guerrillas to smuggle tons of cocaine through the country to
raise money for their insurgency. Chavez has denied doing that.
Relations between the two South American nations have been rocky
in recent years. Tensions hit their low point in 2008 after
Colombia attacked a FARC camp in Ecuador. Chavez responded by
briefly dispatching troops to the 1,400-mile (2,300-kilometer)
border with Colombia and temporarily pulling out his ambassador in
Chavez was infuriated when Colombian officials later leaked
electronic documents they said were found on the computer of a FARC
commander killed in the cross-border raid. In the documents, rebel
commanders discussed obtaining bazookas and other weapons from
Venezuelan officials, including then-military intelligence chief
Chavez and Uribe smoothed over their fight last year and
Elsa Cardoso, a professor of political science and international
relations at the Central University of Venezuela, said she expects
the conflict this time to be more severe and longer lasting.
"Accusations against Venezuela's government have been
accumulating: drug trafficking, arms trafficking and connections to
Colombian guerrillas," Cardoso said in a telephone interview.
"Venezuela has put itself in the eye of the hurricane."
Before the rocket report, Venezuela was upset by Colombia's
decision to forge stronger military ties with the United States.
Chavez, who has sought to use Venezuelan oil wealth to forge an
anti-U.S. bloc in the region, has strongly criticized a pact being
negotiated to let U.S. forces use three airfields and two navy
bases in Colombia.
Colombian officials say Venezuela should not be concerned,
saying the U.S. forces will be helping fight drug trafficking.
Colombia says the number of U.S. service personnel and civilian
military contractors will not exceed the 1,400 mandated by the U.S.