Border violence, US base plans escalate tensions between Bogotá and Caracas

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Nov. 3 threatened to completely close the border with Colombia following the murder of two members of the Civil Guard by an alleged Venezuelan ally of Colombian paramilitaries. The two officials were shot by men on motorbikes just feet away from the border the previous day. Authorities on the Venezuelan side of the border near Cucuta immediately closed two main checkpoints connecting Colombia’s Norte de Santander department and Venezuela’s Tachira state. These were opened temporarily the next day to allow stuck travelers to cross. Trucks were not allowed to pass. “One of the measures we are studying is to declare an emergency at the border and, well, close it.” Chavez said. (Colombia Reports, Nov. 4)

The current dispute is damaging their $7 billion a year in trade after Chávez suspended ties in July and began reinforcing border security. Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe sought to assuage fears of border militarization. “Colombia would never build a Berlin Wall on the frontier, our countries can never be divided, they cannot be separated,” Uribe said on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was speaking at an event for soldiers wounded in combat. (Colombia Reports, Nov. 4)

The plan signed last week to allow greater US access to Colombian military bases is also exacerbating tensions. Chávez said Nov. 4 in a televised meeting of his Council of Ministers: “Colombia decided to hand over its sovereignty to the United States… Colombia no longer governs its territory. Colombia today is no longer a sovereign country… it is a kind of colony.” (VenezuelAnalysis, Nov. 4)

Details of the plan were released by the Colombian government Nov. 3, to great controversy. The text reveals that US military aircraft could have access to any international airport in Colombia under the accord. Interior and Justice Minister Fabio Valencia Cossio specified that the agreement explicitly allows a US presence at seven of Colombia’s military airbases, but the government can also authorize Pentagon use of other airfields, including civilian ones. The agreement further stipulates that with Colombian permission, the US may construct buildings such as living quarters on the military bases where they have access. Armed forces commander Gen. Freddy Padilla acknowledged that for the first time, US personnel working within the agreement will be granted diplomatic immunity in Colombia—although he added that Washington has committed to addressing any request from Colombian authorities to renounce this immunity. The US military will not participate in any armed operations in Colombia assured the Ambassador William Brownfield in an interview with the Bogotá daily El Tiempo. (BBC News, Nov. 5; Colombia Reports, Nov. 4; El Tiempo, Nov. 1)

See our last post on Colombia and Venezuela.

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