First Honduras, now Colombia: What'll provoke Chavez next?

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 29, 2009 

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez has put relations with neighboring Colombia in the deep freeze again, sparking concerns about the mercurial leader's next moves.

Chavez withdrew his ambassador from Colombia Tuesday and threatened to break diplomatic relations to protest complaints by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe that three grenade launchers found in the hands of Colombia's biggest guerrilla group had been sold by the Swedish government to Venezuela in 1988.

Chavez denied Uribe's charge, which seems to provide more evidence of ties between Chavez and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who've been waging a 45-year battle to overthrow Colombia's democratically elected government.

Tommy Stromberg, the political counselor at the Swedish Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, said Wednesday that his government has been pressing Venezuela for weeks to explain how the three shoulder-fired AT4 grenade launchers and ammunition ended up with the FARC.

"We're waiting for the content of the actual response," Stromberg said by telephone.

Uribe went public with his charge after getting no response from Venezuela, a spokesman said Wednesday in Colombia. He spoke days after his government angered Chavez by announcing that it would allow the U.S. military to expand its anti-drug presence in Colombia.

It's yet another source of frustration for the Venezuelan leader, who's sought in vain to return Manuel Zelaya, the ousted president of Honduras and a close ally, to power.

Honduras had been part of Chavez's anti-U.S. alliance, which also includes Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Colombia, in contrast, has become one of the staunchest U.S. allies in Latin America.

While Chavez's bark has proven worse than his bite in past diplomatic crises, a deteriorating economy at home and his inability to orchestrate Zelaya's return make his next moves unpredictable as he tries to regain the offensive.

"Among those who consider (Chavez) an enemy, I'm sure they fear what he might do next as he ratchets up tension in the region," said Robert Pastor, a longtime Latin American expert who teaches at American University. "But history shows that he can be hostile in his language, but when there is pushback he usually retreats."

Chavez can thunder against Uribe, a longtime antagonist, but he faces more difficulty in explaining away the concerns of the Swedish government.

In a sign of the brittle atmosphere, Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, the regional body that includes nearly all the nations of the hemisphere, called on Venezuela and Colombia Wednesday to avoid escalating the diplomatic tiff.

Fernando Morgado, the president of Consecomercio, a Caracas-based business association, expressed concern over Chavez's threat to act against Colombian imports and Colombian companies that operate in Venezuela.

Venezuela is a major importer of Colombian milk, meat and car parts, which can become scarce because of Chavez's price controls.

Nonetheless, Chavez threatened to cut off the imports.

"We can get them from any other country," Chavez said.

Venezuela's principal exports to Colombia — oil, sugar and rice — cross the border as contraband because the Chavez price controls make them much cheaper in Venezuela.

Colombian officials have released documents that it says show that Chavez's government sympathizes with the FARC and gives senior guerrilla leaders refuge in isolated areas in western Venezuela.

Electronic documents that Colombian forces found last year on laptops belonging to Raul Reyes, a slain FARC commander, seemed to confirm the Chavez government's assistance, including evidence suggesting that FARC leaders sought to obtain bazookas from senior Venezuelan military officials.

The attack that killed Reyes just inside Ecuadorean territory prompted Chavez in March 2008 to break off diplomatic relations with Colombia and send troops to the border. Uribe and Chavez later smoothed over relations and promoted efforts to increase bilateral trade.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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