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Chávez threatens to cut all ties with Colombia

By Andy Webb-Vidal in Caracas | The Financial Times

Published: January 24 2005 18:48 | Last updated: January 25 2005 00:27 | Venezuela has raised the stakes in its diplomatic dispute with Colombia after Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, threatened to sever ties completely with Bogotá and accused the US of engaging in an “imperialist” plot.

Mr Chávez warned that he would cut relations with the US-backed neighbour and stop all bilateral trade if the government of Alvaro Uribe failed to “apologise” for the capture in December of a Colombian insurgent in Caracas.

During the past week relations between the two countries have soured badly, following the arrest of Rodrigo Granda, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), a group considered a terrorist organisation by the US and Europe.

Mr Chávez claims that the incident was a violation of national sovereignty, but Colombia maintains that the Farc rebel's capture, in December, was the result of the offer of a reward, and has refused to apologise.

“If there is no sign of a rectification we would have to freeze relations with Colombia and cut commercial relations to a minimum,” Mr Chávez said. “The kidnapping of Granda from Caracas is a new US imperialist attack.”

On January 14 Mr Chávez recalled his ambassador to Bogotá and unilaterally suspended joint projects with Colombia. Mr Chávez's raising of the stakes has caused widespread concern in Colombia. Yesterday, Ernesto Samper, a former Colombian president, described Mr Chávez's comments as “economic blackmail”.

Venezuela is Colombia's second-largest trading partner, and disruption to trade would hurt Colombian exporters. Annual bilateral trade is worth about $2.5bn.

“Some of Colombia's economic growth has been dependent on increased Venezuelan imports of Colombian goods. Cutting off this market would be very bad for Colombia,” said a US consultant who studies Colombia closely.

Meanwhile, Mr Chávez's resolve may have scuppered a nascent effort by Brazil to mediate in the crisis. The row also threatens to isolate Venezuela diplomatically. José Luis Rodr´guez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, cancelled the Venezuelan leg of a tour of South America this week.

Adam Ereli, a spokesman for the State Department, called on Caracas on Monday to act on an intelligence dossier given by Colombia last week that supposedly details the whereabouts of 10 “major Colombian terrorists” operating out of Venezuela.

In Washington, some observers see Mr Granda's capture in Caracas as evidence that the Chávez government supports terrorists.

“Certainly the Granda case paints Venezuela very much in the light of a country that is harbouring terrorists,” said Stephen Johnson, senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think-tank.

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