CARACAS – The Venezuelan government said it will not renew a deal to provide inexpensive gasoline to Colombian border areas after that accord expired earlier this week, Energy and Mines Minister Rafael Ramirez said.
“We see no reason to renew this agreement, which expired yesterday,” Ramirez told reporters Wednesday about the move, which comes as bilateral tensions have flared up over a proposed deal to let U.S. troops use Colombian military bases and Bogota’s insinuations that oil-rich Venezuela has been arming leftist rebels.
“We not willing to continue subsidizing the Colombian economy when on that side highly unfriendly decisions are being made against our people and our country,” Ramirez, who also heads state oil company PDVSA, said.
Ramirez said the gasoline deal, under which Venezuela supplied the border region with 11 million barrels of gasoline a month at preferential prices to combat smuggling, was ended in response to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s decision to give the U.S. military access to seven bases.
Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez – who was briefly ousted in a 2002 coup, which he claims the U.S. government supported – says the base deal represents a threat to his country and could spark a war in the region.
Colombia, however, contends Venezuela has nothing to fear and maintains the agreement will bolster the fight against drug trafficking and terrorist activity and is necessary after Ecuador ended a lease allowing U.S. access to a base in that country.
“There’s no way to say this is a matter of Colombian sovereignty because its consequences transcend borders and represent a danger and a threat to our country, to (close ally) Ecuador and the remaining South American countries,” the minister said.
Ramirez also said steps will be taken to combat the rampant smuggling of Venezuelan gasoline – which sells for extremely low, subsidized prices – across the border.
The measures will include sealing up tanker trucks headed for the border region and using GPS systems to track their routes.
Specially trained officials – working in collaboration with the army and the national guard – also will inspect gas stations and make sure there is no change in the level of the tanks from the time the establishments close in the evening and when they open the next day.
Ramirez said stations “will be closed” if any irregularities are detected.
He also announced that filling stations will be “automated” so that vehicles do not receive more fuel than they are allowed.
The Colombian government, meanwhile, said Wednesday night in response to the Chavez government’s decision that it will guarantee the supply of gasoline to cities on the border with Venezuela.
“(State oil company) Ecopetrol is able to (supply enough fuel) there,” Uribe told reporters after attending a merchants’ congress in the southwestern city of Cali.
Caracas threatened to freeze diplomatic and trade relations with Colombia after Uribe’s government said rocket launchers that Sweden sold to Venezuela in the 1980s ended up in the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla group, considered a terrorist organization by Bogota, the United States and the European Union.
Chavez vehemently denies providing financial or military support to the rebels and said Sunday that a thaw in bilateral relations is “impossible” while Uribe is president.
The Venezuelan leader briefly withdrew his ambassador in Bogota, although he subsequently sent him back, and Caracas has been looking to other countries of the region to replace products traditionally imported from Colombia, such as food and textiles.
Colombia’s exports to Venezuela made up a disproportionate share of the nations’ $7 billion worth of trade last year. EFE