By Jeremy Morgan & Russ Dallen
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – President Hugo Chávez sprung another surprise by suddenly ordering Venezuela’s ambassador to Colombia to return to Bogotá, instructing envoy Gustavo Marquéz “to go to work” because “we don’t have a rupture of relations in our plans.”
The instruction came late Friday evening and marked a u-turn in Chávez’s actions since he plunged bilateral links into a “freezer” after Bogotá said weapons found in the possession of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were originally sold by a Swedish company to the Venezuelan armed forces.
The rapid policy reversal -- while not unusual for the often seemingly mercurial Chavez -- came after subtle reminders from Colombia's Energy and Mines Ministry, reported in Thursday's Latin American Herald Tribune, that "por ahora" it intended to continue to supply Venezuela with 200 to 300 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. The gas is deemed essential for keeping the oil flowing from many of Venezuela's aging oil wells. Without the gas injections, many of the wells in Zulia would cease to produce, and Venezuela's oil production, exports and thus, dollars, would rapidly collapse.
Colombia began natural gas exports to Venezuela in January 2008 through a new pipeline that runs from Campo Ballena, Colombia, to Zulia state in Venezuela.
Obviously overlooking this dependence, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on August 6 even went so far as to say that Colombia state oil company Ecopetrol would not be allowed to participate in the Carabobo tender for seven heavy crude blocks in the prolific Orinoco belt because of the diplomatic dispute.
In a coordinated example of Colombiian realpolitik, Ecopetrol chimed in with the Colombia Ministry with a discrete reminder during a conference call on Thursday. "The contract has been complied with since the beginning of 2008 without regard to the political situation between Colombia and Venezuela," the Ecopetrol official said, referring to the natural gas exports.
"This year, we have been selling over 140Mf3/d (4Mm3/d), and we expect to maintain those sales to that market," the official continued.
Because of its needs for its fading oil wells, Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA agreed to purchase an initial 50Mf3/d with the amount rising to 150Mf3/d in 2009 and 2010 before dropping to 100Mf3/d in 2011. Initial Breaks
Chávez all but broke diplomatic relations beginning on the 28th of July, when he ordered Ambassador Marquéz home, vowing that only one diplomat of the lowest rank would be left behind at the embassy in Bogotá. He ordered strictly enforced borders and trade, declaring that Colombian imports would be replaced permanently by products from other countries. Chavez also ordered a halt to the import of 10,000 cars from Colombia.
However, the first sign that a change of posture if not mind might be in the air came in a televised speech Thursday night in which Chávez shifted the ultimate blame for the crisis with Colombia from Bogotá to Washington. This was seen as an attempt to ensure that warlike rhetoric didn’t actually lead to the real thing.
Chávez accused the United States of wanting to stir up a war between Venezuela and Colombia. This, he said, was why Washington was intent on using military bases in the neighboring country.
“The yanquis would be the first to benefit from a war between Colombia and Venezuela, and installing the bases is the first step,” he declared on that occasion.
There was more in this vein on Friday night as he unveiled his decision to send Marquéz back to Bogotá. The information used to back up the Colombian claim that the FARC weapons come from Venezuela was groundless and showed that the United States was “using Colombia against us,” he claimed.
Having recast Uribe as patsy rather than villain, Chávez revived his old assertion that the United States was planning to invade Venezuela to seize its oil resources, this time the heavy crude fields in the Orinoco Basin, colloquially known as the Faja.
“What they’re sowing here are winds of war and for that reason we have the responsibility of alerting Colombia and the world,” he declared. “The United States is generating tensions.”
Chávez said one of the proposals which Marquéz would be pursuing in resumed dealings with the Colombian government would be setting up “peace bases” in both countries. The plan wasn’t something out of Utopia, he argued, because the camps would represent “territories of peace” and would help Colombia resolve its internal conflict.
This almost neighborly tone was quite some way from the bellicose manner in which Chávez had greeted the first spark in this latest spat between the two countries. This was an agreement signed by Uribe with Washington allowing the United States armed forces to use military bases in Colombia.
The second was Bogotá’s claim about how the Swedish anti-tank weaponry sold to Venezuela had ended up in the hands of the FARC. From then on,
things really began to rumble.
Chávez argues that Uribe’s deal with Washington poses a threat to the region in general and Venezuela in particular. On Friday, in a sign that he might be by no means prepared yet to bury the hatchet entirely, Chávez went further, claiming that Uribe had assured him that the United States wasn’t going to “install” bases in Colombia.
Technically speaking, that would appear to have been true, assuming Uribe used those actual words, since the accord in question refers to the use of existing bases.
Chávez is also deemed to have shifted his ground just as abruptly on the possibility of anybody mediating in the dispute, insisting at the start that there was simply no question of this happening. Then, on Thursday, he aired the idea of former Colombian Foreign Minister María Emma Mejía acting as a go-between.
This was after a meeting last Wednesday with former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, who in turn said he’d pass on the message. Mejía has since turned down the proposal flat on the grounds that the Colombian constitution stipulates that the conduct of foreign affairs is the sole remit of the president.
In the meantime, the trade ban set alarm bells ringing in the business communities on both sides of the border. Chávez has also dragged in supposed manipulation by the United States to justify replacing an annual $6 billion worth of imports from Colombia.
It was his “responsibility” to do so, he said late Thursday, “because at any moment, the Yanquis can come along and say don’t send anymore meat to Chávez, don’t send any more milk to the Venezuelans, because the Yanquis are going to be in charge there, not Colombia, nor Uribe.”
On Friday, the head of the Venezuelan-Colombian Integration Chamber (Cavecol) warned that the decision to “suspend” bilateral trade could affect the jobs of at least half a million people in Colombia and Venezuela. However, Cavecol President Daniel Montealegre also implied that the threat had yet to be put into force since the border was still open.
Asking “the authorities” to “rectify” the decision to shut the frontier and resort to diplomatic channels to resolve the impasse, Montealgre said that if the break was made, as many as 300,000 companies in manufacturing and commerce in the two countries would have to find alternative markets. Cutting off trade would also have consequences for inflation and operating costs in both countries, he added.
According to Montealegre, Colombian exports to Venezuela consist mainly of food including meat, chicken, eggs, milk and dairy products, as well as other products such as leather, textiles, paper, graphic materials, cosmetics and household goods.
Colombian exports to Venezuela also include cars and trucks as well as parts for the auto assembly industry here. And such are the shortcomings of the distribution grid run by the state oil corporation, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), that Colombia also delivers natural gas to Venezuela.
For its part, Venezuela exports steel and related products, aluminium, manufactured goods and petrochemicals products. PDVSA doesn’t deliver oil to Colombia, whose reserves, while modest compared with Venezuela’s, are deemed enough for self-sufficiency for at least a few years to come.
Venezuela is set to start exporting natural gas to Colombia in 2012 or 2013 under a bilateral accord signed earlier this decade. It is under this agreement that Colombia is supplying gas to Venezuela while PDVSA installs pipelines and other facilities in the interior of Venezuela.
As to the anti-tank rockets and launchers which Bogotá says were somehow passed from Venezuela to the FARC, Chávez claims that the weapons were stolen during a guerrilla attack on a Venezuelan navy post in 1995 – three years before he was first elected to power. As to Colombian claims of Venezuelan collusion, these were aimed solely at distracting attention from United States use of the military bases, he says.Chávez Urged to Rethink Trade Break with Colombia
Chavez Wants Colombian to Help Defuse Bilateral Spat
Venezuela's Chavez Continues Tough Line with Bogotá on FARC Weapons Claims