Wed., July 28, 2010 3:59pm (EDT)

Is Outgoing Colombian President Riling Venezuela?
By Juan Forero
Updated: 4 years ago

Earlier this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatened to cut off oil supplies to the United States should his country be invaded by Colombia, a U.S. ally.

This comes days after Chavez broke relations with Colombia over charges that his country harbors Colombian guerrillas. But some observers say it's Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose term ends in a few days, who has triggered the crisis in the Andes.

A Delicate Time

In Sunday's bombastic speech, Chavez told his countrymen war was imminent -- and that it was the Yankee empire orchestrating the coming bloodbath. If an attack came, Chavez said, he would shut off the oil spigot to the United States -- even if that meant Venezuelans would be forced to eat rocks.

This has been a regular threat over the years, and it plays well to Chavez's most radical followers.

But Chavez's latest diatribe comes at a particularly delicate time. Last week, in a special emergency session of the Organization of American States, the Colombian ambassador to that body, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, detailed how Venezuela allegedly aided and abetted Marxist rebels who have been fighting Colombia since the 1960s.

Hoyos showed satellite photographs and video he said showed how guerrillas operate inside Venezuela.

The problem, some critics of the Colombian government say, is there was nothing new.

It's all been well established since 2008, when Colombia's army seized reams of rebel documents suggesting close ties between Venezuela and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas.

The Venezuelans have denied the allegations and instead accuse the Obama administration of planning to attack, using Colombia as its proxy.

'Sending A Message'

Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, told reporters on Tuesday that his country was on red alert.

"We don't see anything coming from Colombia without the U.S. knowing and promoting," he says. "Because if you see the script of the accusations, it is exactly the same script that has been presented by the U.S. since 2003."

Analysts like Adam Isacson, who tracks military matters in this region, see a more complex picture.

"Venezuela's protestations that these are somehow fake videos and fake pictures doesn't hold water," he says. "I mean, clearly the FARC have encampments and facilities on the Venezuelan side of the border, and their leaders cross the border quite easily."

But Isacson, from the Washington Office on Latin America, did have a question: Why now? Colombia's president, Uribe, leaves office on Aug. 7 -- to be replaced by Juan Manuel Santos. Why stir the pot with only moments left to his administration?

Isacson noted that Santos has been working to improve relations with Chavez. He says Uribe may not have been comfortable with that.

"It looked like a rapprochement was in the works," he says. "It seemed clear that Uribe was sending a message to the president-elect as much as he was sending a message to Chavez."

Changing Priorities?

Santos was Uribe's defense minister when some of the biggest blows were delivered against the FARC rebels. This includes the daring 2008 rescue of 15 hostages, including three U.S. Defense Department contractors.

Since his election in May, though, Santos has distanced himself from Uribe. He has appointed independent-minded ministers -- some of them tough critics of Uribe's style of governing. Santos also invited Chavez to his inauguration.

In an interview shortly before he won the presidency, Santos told NPR that he wanted to make relations with Venezuela a priority.

"If we respect our differences, then we could have good relations. And we must never forget, never forget, that when two heads of state fight, the people who suffer are the common people," he said.

Now, Chavez says he won't be attending Santos' inauguration. And many in the region are wondering if relations between the two countries have any chance of improving. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]