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Tensions Escalate Between Venezuela And Colombia

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Tensions between Venezuela and its neighbor Colombia have flared over a proposed deal in which Bogota would allow the United States to establish seven military bases on its soil.

The issue has become a source of dispute in South America, and it comes as Venezuela is increasing its military and nuclear cooperation with Russia.

The Americans have asked for the bases to aid in the fight against drug trafficking. The Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, however, speaking on August 5 at a news conference in Caracas said that "various friends of Colombia are worried about these bases."

"It could be the first step toward a war in South America. We're talking about the Yankees, the most aggressive nation in human history," Chavez said.

After recalling his ambassador from Colombia last week, the Venezuelan leader on August 5 announced punitive trade measures on the country, including prohibiting the import of 10,000 cars from Colombia.

It will also seek to substitute for Colombian imports by increasing imports from more friendly states like Argentina and Brazil.

As Chavez drew unfavorable attention to the U.S. base proposal, Colombia renewed its accusations that Venezuela is arming the Colombian Marxist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Last week, Colombia asserted that a rocket launcher and automatic rifles found in a FARC camp were of Venezuelan origin.

On August 5, Chavez asserted that the arms in question were stolen from a Venezuelan naval base 14 years ago. He claimed that the arms allegations were simply an attempt by Bogota to deflect attention from the base agreement.

Chavez’s reaction is not the only headache for Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally.

As Chavez indicated, the base proposal has proved divisive in South America. Uribe embarked upon a regional tour this week to explain the deal and has received a mixed reception.

Attacks On American Policy

The dispute highlights the fact that the enmity between Washington and Caracas has not changed fundamentally with the Obama administration. After an initial thaw in January, Chavez has continued his frequent attacks on American policies in the region.

"We want to look for a road to peace in Colombia, and that's where I'm frustrated with [U.S. President Barack] Obama," Chavez said at the August 5 news conference.

"Obama should withdraw [from Columbia] instead of sending more soldiers, more planes, more dollars, and more helicopters and bombs to Colombia so there is more war and more death," Chavez said.

As Chavez lambasts U.S. cooperation with Colombia, the Venezuelan leader continues to increase his country's ties with Russia.

In recent years, Venezuela has purchased billions of dollars of Russian-made arms. Venezuela and Russia made further agreements in late July for weapons purchases, joint exercises, and technology exchanges. Chavez announced on August 5 that his government will buy dozens of Russian tanks.

On July 28, Russia also signed a series of agreements with Nicaragua during a visit to the country by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin. The two governments adopted visa-free travel for their citizens and reached agreements regarding energy and fishery.

The Venezuelan government has also sought Russian cooperation with its budding nuclear program. Last November, the two countries signed a cooperation agreement on developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

On August 5, Interfax reported that a Venezuelan delegation met with officials from Russia’s state-owned company that administers the civilian nuclear industry. The talks focused on collaboration in building reactors, as well as proposals for Russia to train Venezuelan personnel.

The latest weapons purchases and nuclear cooperation show a tightening relationship between two governments which have repeatedly clashed with Washington.

The United States was an arms supplier to Venezuela before reducing its military exports dramatically after a 2006 flare-up with Caracas.