BOGOTA, Colombia, and CARACAS, Venezuela -- Notwithstanding a border attack this week by leftist rebels hiding in Venezuela that left 12 Colombian soldiers dead, relations between the neighboring nations have improved steadily in recent months, as evidenced by energy deals including a proposed $8-billion pipeline as well as a crackdown on gasoline smuggling.
Fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, apparently fled back to Venezuela after the bloody ambush Monday, prompting a promise from President Hugo Chavez to send three army battalions to the Perija Mountains area to drive the rebels from their sparsely populated refuge.
“We are active on the border ... and we will patrol by air and land,” Chavez said during a televised meeting of ministers, his first public appearance since returning from medical treatment in Cuba two weeks ago. “We are not going to permit this and as we’ve said a million times, all we want is peace for Colombia.”
Chavez’s declaration came as Colombian Mining and Energy Minister Mauricio Cardenas said that Venezuela had agreed to expand exports of discount gasoline to several Colombian border states. The aim is to frustrate a cross-border gas smuggling racket controlled by mafias and terrorist groups, Cardenas said.
Smugglers take advantage of the huge differential between the subsidized Venezuelan gasoline price of five cents per gallon and the $5-a-gallon price charged in Colombia. Cardenas said the crackdown is designed not to generate taxes, but to strike a blow at the armed groups.
According to Francisco Monaldi, an economist at the Caracas think tank IESA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA may lose up to 50,000 barrels daily to smugglers. That's 7% of the 700,000 barrels of fuel refined each day for domestic consumption. More than half of the smuggled fuel is believed to end up in Colombia, the rest in Brazil and Caribbean countries.
Colombia has also agreed to increase by up to 50% its exports of natural gas from the northeastern Guajira peninsula to the western Venezuelan industrial city of Maracaibo. Moreover, Colombia will export electric power from its Inirida power plant to southern Venezuelan states.
This month, Cardenas signed a preliminary deal with a Chinese development bank that could lead to financing for a 1,000-mile, $8-billion pipeline that Colombia and Venezuela want to build from eastern Venezuela to an undetermined port city on Colombia’s Pacific coast. The pipeline would provide better access to Asian markets for crude oil.
The two Latin countries were at each other’s throats in 2008 after then-President Alvaro Uribe ordered commandos to invade Eduador to kill Raul Reyes, a top FARC commander. Chavez briefly called up troops and tanks to the border area with Colombia and said any similar pursuit of rebels in Venezuela would result in war.
Chavez also said Tuesday that he telephoned Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to assure him of increased border vigilance. While Santos has minimized his public complaints over FARC’s alleged use of Venezuela for refuge, his predecessor Uribe had routinely accused Chavez of tolerating the rebels' presence in his territory, which Chavez denies.
-- Chris Kraul in Bogota and Mery Mogollon in Caracas
Photo: Colombian soldiers evacuate the body of one of 12 colleagues killed in combat with FARC rebels on the border with Venezuela this week. Credit: Diario del Norte