As Latin American leaders rush to defuse tensions between Colombia and Venezuela, severed last week over new allegations that Venezuela is harboring leftist guerrillas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is seeking to cast attention much farther north.
On Sunday Mr. Chávez threatened to cut oil supplies to the US, should a military attack come from Colombia.
“If there was any armed aggression against Venezuela from Colombian territory or from anywhere else, promoted by the Yankee empire, we would suspend oil shipments to the United States, even if we have to eat stones here,” Chávez said Sunday. “We would not send a drop more to US refineries.”
This is not the first time that Chávez has threatened to cut off oil to the US, or charged the US and Colombia of plots to attack Venezuela, but most analysts have discarded the threats as empty. Although Venezuela has expanded its trading relationship with Asia, the US is still its main oil customer. Venezuela sends the US about a million barrels a day, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
“This has been said so many times, it has lost its weight,” says Elsa Cardozo, an international relations expert at the Universidad Metropolitana in Venezuela's capital, Caracas. “The US is so important to Venezuela for energy exports, the idea would be suicidal.”
Regional tensions rise
Tensions between Venezuela and Colombia have grown over the years, but just as Colombian President Álvaro Uribe – a key US ally in the region – is set to leave office, the relationship hit another low.
Last week, Colombia presented evidence to the Organization of American States (OAS) alleging that some 1,500 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels are currently in Venezuela. Chávez denied the allegations and immediately cut off diplomatic relations with Colombia in retaliation.
Venezuela has warned Colombia over aggression in the region in the past, particularly after Colombia launched a raid on Ecuadorean soil in 2008 on a FARC camp, killing FARC leader Raúl Reyes. Chávez then put his military on high alert, sending troops to the border its shares with Colombia. And after a plan last year was revealed to allow US military access to Colombian bases, Chavez warned of a possible US attack from South American soil.
President Uribe, who has centered his presidency on providing security by taking on the FARC, has continuously accused Venezuela of supporting the rebels.
The long-brewing battle has had an impact on the economies of both countries.
Many had hoped that as Juan Manuel Santos takes over the presidency in Colombia on Aug. 7, the relationship between Colombia and Venezuela could begin to heal, even though Mr. Santos served as defense minister at the time of the Ecuadorean raid. Now it seems the hurdles are higher.
Chávez cancels trip to Cuba
On Sunday, Chavez said he had new intelligence, which he did not identify, saying the threat of an attack from Colombia was higher than ever. He canceled a trip Monday to Cuba, where his allies Raúl Castro and Fidel Castro are celebrating Revolution Day today, to address the threat, he said.
Ms. Cardozo says she believes there is no real threat, and that his motivation is to stir up nationalist sentiment ahead of crucial legislative elections in September and deflect attention from economic woes in the country.
“As president, Chávez always does this,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a consultancy based in New York. “He is trying to turn a very significant accusation against his country into a win for himself domestically.”
The regional group of South American nations called UNASUR will be meeting in Ecuador soon to try to resolve the conflict, but the US is likely to stay on the sidelines, says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.
“Chávez is going through a predictable scenario …. Of marching up the hill and then marching down again,” says Mr. Birns. “Chávez has always indicated that the oil weapon is in his quiver, but … his threat is more bark than bite.”