Colombia elections: Border town frets about Hugo Chávez trade threats

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez threatened to shut down trade if Colombian presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos wins the May 30 Colombia elections.

By , Correspondent

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    Juan Manuel Santos, the presidential candidate of Colombia's rightist Social National Unity Party, gets his make up done before a televised presidential debate in Bogota, Thursday. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has threatened to shut down trade with Colombia if Santos wins the May 30 elections.
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On the face of it, it is just another backwater dusty town in Colombia´s north eastern frontier with Venezuela. But beyond the potholed main street, dotted with cactus plants and rubbish, lies a thriving market town.

Arab traders sell electronic goods such as TVs and refrigerators shipped in from Panama. Colombian merchants trade in clothes as well as jewelery with gold and precious stones. Native Way'ùu indians sit in doorways knitting traditional dresses for artesan shops.

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez last month threatened to cut trade with Colombia if presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos wins Sunday's May 30 elections. If elected, Mr. Santos, Colombia´s former defense minister under President Alvaro Uribe, had talked about chasing FARC over the border into Venezuela .

In Maicao, which lies just a 10-minute drive from Colombian´s eastern frontier with Venezuela, residents worry about damage to business from the potential spat. The town depends on trade with its neighbor. A steady stream of Venezuelans flow over the border to buy clothes, food staples, and luxury goods such as TVs.

"It´s very worrying," said one jewelery shop owner who declined to be named."This is a frontier town which depends on the trade from Venezuela." He does a good trade selling gold to Venezuelans, he says, an income he fears will be lost if President Chávez restricts border crossings.

Luis Ramirez imports electronic goods sold to traders here and in Venezuela. He doesn´t believe Chavez´s threat to close the border between Colombia and Venezuela, an import dependent nation that relies heavily on food and other goods from Colombia. "They´d die from hunger," he laughs.

Chávez briefly closed the border with Colombia in 2009, and sent Venezuelan troops to the border in 2008 after Colombia raided a FARC rebel camp in Ecuador, an incursion he feared would be repeated in Venezuela.

Presidential candidate Santos is running neck and neck in the polls with rival Antanas Mockus, the Green Party candidate, a moderate leftist whom critics have likened to Chávez. One man here says he fears Colombia will fall under the spell of Chávez´s Socialist ideology if Mr. Mockus wins.

"He´s a leftist as well and he´ll enter into dialogue with Chávez," says Nelson Diaz, "he has the same politics and idealism of Chávez and he´ll let it enter here." The mathemician has dismissed any the likeness to Chávez.

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FARC guerrillas which once held sway over vast swathes of Colombia have been pushed to remote rural outposts by Mr. Uribe´s military drive against the leftist rebels, gaining him huge popularity in Colombia.

Santos is seen as the heir apparent to take on the security mantle. The former defense minister spearheaded a 2008 rescue of 15 hostages including three Americans from FARC captivity.

Mockus is calling for dialogue with the FARC, if he steps into the presidential shoes. Critics say he lacks the tough edge of Santos to keep the guerrillas at bay.

The candidate, who is popular with youth groups for his pro-education policies, says his two tenures as Bogotá mayor prepared him for the task.

"Santos had his successes, yes, but I too had success while mayor, deflecting terrorist attacks against the city and strengthening the police," he says during a recent campaign stop in nearby Riohacha, the La Guajira capital.

“The challenge – it's a labor and a calling that doesn't intimidate me,” he adds.

Many rebels on the run from the military are holed-up along Venezuela´s 2,200 kilometer porous frontier with Venezuela and sheltered by Chávez, critics say. Chávez denies the claims.

But one merchant who runs his jewelery business in Maicao from Miami, who fled Colombia after FARC guerrillas threatened to “kill me or kidnap me,” he says, is sure the leftist rebels are hiding just over the border.

"They have protection from the government of Venezuela. They help the FARC a lot and give them refuge," says Israel Hernando, by telephone from Miami.

For now, he hopes Venezuela and Colombia can resolve their differences for the sake of the folk in this frontier town who enjoy good relations with their neighbors. "We are brothers. We've always been there for each other."

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