June 06, 2007
Despite warm relations between their leaders, Colombia and Venezuela seem to be entering a Cold War.
Relations between Colombia and Venezuela are starting to resemble a Latin American version of the Cold War, as the two countries try to sort out the murders of two Bogotá intelligence agents in Venezuela and Colombia's recent deportation of a Venezuelan politician.
The new tensions come atop Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro's recent decision to cancel a trip to Bogotá, saying Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos had falsely accused Caracas of being a major transit point for drug and weapons smugglers.
''We aren't going to accept any more conduct of this sort,'' Maduro told reporters. ``It's not a game to us.''
Maduro more recently met with Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araújo in Bogotá and called for a ''positive agenda.'' But relations remain chilly.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe come from different ideological corners, with Chávez pushing for what he calls ''Bolivarian socialism'' while Uribe is a free-market conservative who has launched an unprecedented offensive against leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC.
Relations briefly came apart in early 2005, after Uribe sent secret agents to capture and bring back a top FARC member in Caracas. Venezuela threatened to sever all diplomatic ties, until Uribe made a special trip to patch up relations.
The two presidents most often have maintained good relations, however. Venezuela is Colombia's chief trading partner and the two countries recently signed an agreement on building a natural gas pipeline.
But behind their smiles and mutual pats on the shoulder, neither seems above the espionage and psychological operations that once characterized the Cold War.
Last month, Santos announced that two Colombian military intelligence agents who were infiltrating the FARC were found tortured and assassinated in Venezuela. ``We don't know why they traveled to Venezuela.''
Colombian and U.S. intelligence officials who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter said Venezuelan police agents killed the two.
Venezuelan government officials have refused to comment on the case, and Santos said the two governments had yet to discuss the matter formally. Despite the gravity of the incident, the Colombian government quietly buried the two agents.
But former Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel, who remains a knowledgeable political player, said on his weekly TV show that the two Colombians were part of a ''destabilization plan'' promoted by Santos.
''The plan consists of infiltrating 12 military personnel in the country, including sharpshooters, to create chaos, by killing leaders of the government and the opposition,'' Rangel alleged. He offered no evidence.
Rangel added that alleged Colombian drug trafficker Wilber Varela, who is on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list and is believed to be operating in Venezuela with the help of some government officials there, was part of the plan.
Varela would be ''captured'' in Venezuela and brought to Colombia, Rangel alleged, then give false testimony against Venezuelan officials and Chávez.
Varela, however, remains at large, while other former traffickers who worked in Venezuela and are jailed in Colombia already have told prosecutors about high-level Venezuelan officials' complicity in the drug trade.
In the other incident that has strained bilateral relations, Colombia deported a Venezuelan National Assemblyman and Chávez ally, José Pirela, and the rector of a Venezuelan government-run university, Víctor Hugo Meriño, after they participated in a local rally for Colombia's opposition Alternative Democratic Pole party.
It's illegal for foreigners to campaign for local politicians.
''Here in Colombia we have to go from the bottom to the top, from local to regional, so the Bolivarians can win the presidency,'' Pirela said at the rally, which was surreptitiously videotaped and later broadcast on Colombian TV.
Alternative Democratic Pole party leaders apologized, and the Colombian presidential security unit said Colombia will ``not accept interference from any country, especially those that want to destabilize our democratic system.''