By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Business leaders and politicians urged President Hugo Chávez to reconsider his decision to consign relations with Colombia to a “freezer” as a result of Colombian claims that Swedish anti-tank weaponry found in the possession of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had originally been sold to the Venezuelan armed forces.
The break in trade links would hurt Venezuela, warned speakers at a forum on bilateral relations in Caracas on Thursday. Too many Venezuelans’ jobs depending on good relations with the neighboring country, they explained.
Veteran Opposition politician Pompeyo Márquez said that millions of inhabitants in border regions were now uncertain of their futures following the president’s decision. Other critics argued that Venezuelan foreign policy could not be run on the basis of personal caprice.
Whether Chávez heard the plea or chose not to listen wasn’t immediately known. But it quickly became clear he had no intention of changing his mind or letting anybody else try to persuade him to do so, or to act as a go-between with Bogotá.
Speaking after meeting with former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, Chávez bluntly declared that neither Samper nor anybody else was going to get involved in his verbal war with Bogotá.
“There are no mediators here, no mediation is possible” Chávez said. “The only way that this situation is going to return to calm is that Colombia desists from handing over its territory to the United States.”
Chávez has reacted bitterly to a recent agreement between Washington and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe under which the United States armed forces are allowed to operate out of military bases in Colombia.
The president claims the chief aim of this is to threaten Venezuela because of its oil reserves. “They failed in Iraq and they’re going home,” he said of the United States.
There was clearly going to be no let-up in the verbal warfare with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, either. He claimed that allegations about the FARC weapons were “false” and intended to distract attention from the military bases – which, he insisted, was the “central theme” of this latest spat with Colombia in general and Uribe in particular.
The two leaders have long been at daggers drawn, despite sporadic attempts to patch up their differences or at least present a public face of doing so. Chávez is a populist nationalist who derides the free market economics that the conservative Uribe, Washington’s closest ally in the region, has pursued in Colombia.
Meanwhile, Colombia took the high road, announcing that it would continue to supply Venezuela with 200 to 250 million cubic feet of natural gas a day, according to the Maracaibo, Venezuela-based newspaper, Panorama, quoting an unnamed official in Colombia's Energy and Mines Ministry. The gas is essential for keeping the oil flowing from many of Venezuela's aging oil wells.
In a separate development, the scientific and investigative police, CICPC, announced that 31 tons of coffee had been confiscated from “unscrupulous” traders in Biscucuy, Portuguesa state, apparently bound for illegal export to Colombia.
CICPC chief Wilmer Flores Tropel said the coffee had been found in three warehouses he said belonged to businessmen he named as Douglas Antonio Godoy Santos, 45, Jean Carlos Peraza Torrealba, 30, alias El Cubano, y Carlos Alberto Rondo Quevedo, 37, nicknamed The Sergeant had been arrested.
Flores Tropel said that the suspects had purchased the coffee from small producers in the region and intended to sell it in Colombia for higher prices. Coffee is one of numerous foodstuffs and other goods subjected to official price controls in Venezuela.
Every three days, two large trucks, each loaded with about 35 tons of coffee had openly crossed the border. Flores Tropel indicated that the seizures would not be the last.
He ordered all coffee suppliers to be inspected to establish whether they were involved in smuggling or hoarding supplies in what he described as “an attack on Venezuelan food sovereignty.” The seized coffee would be held at Guacara in Carabobo state, where it would be processed and distributed for legal sale, he added.
Fama de América and Café Madrid, the two largest coffee companies in Venezuela, were “temporarily” taken over on orders from Food Minister Elías Jaua and Commerce Minister Eduardo Samán earlier this week.
At the time, Jaua said that the seizure was made in order to investigate whether the companies were involved in trying to evade price controls by smuggling coffee out of the country, and if this were found to be the case, they would be expropriated.
Chávez later announced that the companies would be taken under permanent state control within three months.
Fama de América and Café Madrid deny any wrongdoing. Before the takeover, they had warned they only had sufficient supplies of raw material for five days’ production. Juao claimed the companies had recently acquired a larger amount of raw coffee than usual from the market.
“They claimed that they didn’t have raw material, something which awoke suspicion because there was an increase in production this year,” he said. Investigations had uncovered the illegal shipments of coffee to Colombia, he added.
The coffee industry is pressing for higher prices throughout the supply chain, which Jaua indicated might be possible – but under the government’s rules. “We’re willing to revise the structure of costs but not to the exorbitant levels they’re demanding,” he said, remarking that their idea of selling coffee at BsF36 per kilo reflected “irrational aspirations.”