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Colombia and Venezuela Engaged in a War of Words

For the past few months, the presidents of Colombia and Venezuela have been engaged in a war of words, harshly criticizing each other. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez even hinted at the possibility of armed conflict in comments made in mid-January. Yet the two neighboring nations are closely tied commercially -- they are for each other the second largest trading partner after the United States. Reporter Zulima Palacio traveled to the border between the two countries and prepared this story. Mil Arcega narrates the report.

This is one of the two international bridges that joins the most important border crossing between Colombia and Venezuela. Cucuta is on the Colombian side with nearly one million inhabitants. San Antonio del Tachira, with its 150,000 inhabitants, is on the Venezuelan side. Every type of commerce takes place here: from legal multi-million dollar imports and exports, to a wide and rich market of contraband goods.

Eduardo Montoya, who is a street vendor, describes what he does. "I am one more salesman of gasoline here in the Colombo-Venezuelan border, and have been doing this for the past three years. The Venezuelan cars come here and sell gas to us. The gas comes in the tank of the car and then we take it out."

Hundreds of people like him on the roads of Cucuta make a living re-selling cheap gasoline from Venezuela. Carlos Gomez has done it for the past eight years. He says, "The Mayor's office allows us to work but everyone knows we are informal workers and this is an illicit business."

The re-sale of gasoline takes place along much of the extensive 2000 kilometer border between Colombia and Venezuela. The mathematics of this business explains what happens to many other products sold on the border, according to Pedro Sayazo, director of the Cucuta Chamber of Commerce. "A five gallon container in Venezuela costs about 45 cents. When it crosses the border to Colombia, its value goes up to $20. But if we wanted to buy that gasoline at Colombian prices, we would pay about $30 because of the exchange rate."

Sayazo says that while Venezuela imports a large number of food products from Colombia, the government sells it to the population at lower, subsidized prices, making many Colombian goods cheaper in Venezuela. "While this huge difference in exchange rates exists, in which Colombian goods in Venezuela cost half as much and also are subsidized, well, logically in economic terms this stimulates corruption," he said.

Recently, Venezuelan supermarkets started to experience supply problems for some basic food products. Some stores in San Antonio de Tachira closed their doors, others had empty shelves.

A supermarket attendant says supplies are limited. "Yes, we have sugar, but there has been no powdered milk for the past two months and we don't have oil or ketchup."

In January, President Chavez sent the National Guard to San Antonio. Gasoline and other products were confiscated at the border. Hundreds of people involved in the contraband trade slowed their activities . But the "leaking" of products across the border continued, like trucks which used a river path, right under the international bridge.

Javier Diaz Molina is the president of ANALDEX, the Colombian National Association of International Commerce, based in Bogota. "We totally support stopping contraband, because it help us with the illicit drug problem."

Molina says the very diversified commercial relationship with Venezuela grew by 80 percent last year and he hopes the trend will continue, "We sell more than $4 billion in more than 2,000 products. Twenty-five hundred Colombian businesses participated in it."

However Molina expressed concern over the deteriorating political relationship between the two countries. He pointed to the growing tensions between the two presidents, Hugo Chavez and Alvaro Uribe. Mr. Chavez' verbal attacks have been on the rise in recent weeks:
Chavez: "Bush's Speech, that is Uribe, that is Uribe's speech."
Uribe: "The truth, President Chavez, the truth is that when there are no arguments one resorts to insults. And when you do this, then it not only affects international relations but it also hurts the dignity of the nation of Venezuela, which you represent."

Since making those comments, President Uribe has kept silent over the issue. But President Chavez' criticism continues to cause concern in Colombia.

Political analyst Carlos Alberto PatiƱo of the Colombian National University says Mr. Chavez' actions are the result of recent political setbacks in his country. "It seems like President Chavez with all of this may be trying to divert attention away from an internal crisis in Venezuela. I believe we are in a very difficult pre-war moment, mostly because President Chavez has switched diplomatic relations into personal relations, and made it a personal quarrel against President Uribe," he said.

However, at the Colombian-Venezuelan border the feeling is very different. "Nothing is going to happen," Sayazo said. "Like all the confrontations and all the difficulties that Colombia and Venezuela have had in the past."

Some Latin American leaders have expressed concern over the situation and promised to mediate if necessary. And while the press and political analysts are growing concerned, life is back to normal at the border between Colombia and Venezuela.