Border zone bears brunt of Venezuela-Colombia spat

In "Brotherhood Square" beside the border bridge, Colombians, Venezuelans and a few cows share a relaxed moment in the shade.

Border zone bears brunt of Venezuela-Colombia spat

If South American neighbors Venezuela and Colombia are about to go to war, you would never guess it on the "Simon Bolivar" bridge.

Trade may be down, but the bustle of cars, motorbikes and people is still incessant -- carrying Venezuelan gasoline one way, Colombian potatoes the other on the main crossing between the two nations, named for their shared independence hero.

In "Brotherhood Square" beside the border bridge, Colombians, Venezuelans and a few cows share a relaxed moment in the shade. Thousands of people, many with friends and family members on both sides, cross back and forth each day.

"Look around you. We live off them, they live off us. So all this talk of war is crazy," said Janeth Morena, who runs a supermarket in the town of San Antonio on the Venezuelan side.

But below the hurly-burly of life on the border, there is deep anxiety over the accusations of spying, violent incidents and military movements that have increased friction between the ideologically opposed governments.

The long-running diplomatic dispute took a worrying turn at the weekend when President Hugo Chavez told his army "to prepare for war". That caused uproar in Bogota, where the government is calling for international censure of Chavez.

The Venezuelan leader later expressed surprise at the furor, saying he was no warmonger but had to prepare his people against the risk caused by Colombia's decision to increase U.S. access to its military bases.

The row between Washington's strongest ally in the region, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, and its fiercest critic, Chavez, is more ingrained than earlier spats, analysts say.

Nowhere is the dispute's impact felt greater than in the hot, hilly border country.

The escalation in rhetoric was preceded by a string of violent incidents, including the shooting to death of two Venezuelan soldiers, in a region roamed by Colombian paramilitaries and rebels, and criminal gangs from both sides.

"Business has fallen by about 70 percent because of all this," said Morena at her San Antonio supermarket, where toiletries and other items that are cheaper in Venezuela are bought up for transportation to Colombia for a quick profit.

A large portion of the Andean nations' $7 billion-a-year bilateral trade usually trundles over the Simon Bolivar bridge, but now Venezuelan officials are putting up bureaucratic obstacles to slow the flow of Colombian imports, traders say.

Few expect a full-blown conflict, but with jobs going fast in San Antonio and Cucuta, there is growing anxiety and anger.

Some of that is directed against Venezuela's National Guard soldiers, whom locals say are taking advantage of the situation by demanding bribes and harassing people.

Venezuela has stepped-up army maneuvers along its 2,000-km (1,200-mile) border with Colombia and says it is sending thousands of troops. There have been reinforcements on the other side too, residents and local officials say.

Alexis Balza, border director for the opposition administration that runs the west Venezuelan state of Tachira, said Chavez was manipulating the Colombian issue to distract attention from domestic problems and play the nationalist card ahead of 2010 legislative elections.

"He does it every time an election comes," he said, raising his voice in a house just 100 meters from the border. "There is a lot of xenophobia being stirred up against Colombians."

Chavez die-hards, however, say their leader is doing the right thing to defend the border against "ultra-right" Colombian paramilitaries and Venezuelan collaborators.

"We will give our last drop of blood to defend our sovereignty," said Nestor Toloza, an official in the local branch of Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Reuters

Güncelleme Tarihi: 12 Kasım 2009, 19:48
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