Venezuela-Colombia Dispute Reaches WTO, Border Closed After 2 Venezuelan Troops Shot Dead

An August directive by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to “reduce to zero” bi-national trade with neighbouring Colombia has begun to bite, with imports from the neighbouring country falling dramatically. Chavez issued the directive in protest against a military agreement signed between Bogotá and Washington allowing US military troops access to Colombian bases. According to a report by Colombia’s National Department of Statistics, exports to Venezuela fell 49.5% in September. Trade between the two countries is expected to decline even further, after Venezuela imposed a blockade on Colombian agricultural products.

An August directive by VenezuelanPresident Hugo Chavez to “reduce to zero” bi-national trade withneighbouring Colombia has begun to bite, with imports from theneighbouring country falling dramatically.

Chavez issued the directive in protest against a military agreementsigned between Bogotá and Washington allowing US military troops accessto Colombian bases.

According to a report by Colombia’s National Department ofStatistics, exports to Venezuela fell 49.5% in September. Trade betweenthe two countries is expected to decline even further, after Venezuelaimposed a blockade on Colombian agricultural products.

On October 14 Venezuela’s Ministry of Agriculture and Land decidedto restrict the entry of Colombian agricultural products and theissuing of sanitary certificates on Colombian animal and vegetableproducts.

In response, Colombia filed a formal complaint with the World TradeOrganisation’s Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures lastFriday.

Colombia argues that the measure, which impacts the sale of meat,eggs, chicken, coffee, cattle, fruits and vegetables, among otherproducts, was not reported through official channels and the WTO wasnot notified.

Colombia’s Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism Luis GuillermoPlata, said the measures are a “flagrant violation” of WTO norms.

Despite the move, Venezuela continues to remain Colombia’s secondbiggest trading partner after the U.S., accounting for 14.7% ofColombia’s export market, followed closely by the European Union at$14.6%. In 2008 the two countries shared an estimated $7 billion inbilateral trade.

The measures will affect an equivalent of 17% of Colombia’s 2008exports to Venezuela, valued at an estimated US $1.03 billion accordingto Colombia’s Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.

Under WTO regulations, Caracas is required submit justification tothe WTO at its next meeting, scheduled for February 2010, if therestrictive measures are to continue.

The Venezuelan government, which aims to substitute Colombianagricultural imports with imports from Brazil and Argentina, has issuedno formal statement on the WTO complaint. However, delegates fromVenezuela indicated that they will review the case and hope to addressthe issue bilaterally.

Tensions between the two countries flared last week after the bodiesof nine Colombians believed to have been executed by an illegal armedgroup were found in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira.

Venezuela also announced the capture of two Colombians and aVenezuelan accused of spying for Colombia’s Administrative SecurityDepartment (DAS). Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek El Aissamipresented documents allegedly originating from the DAS, which showedthat Colombia had sent spies to Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba as part ofa CIA operation.

Colombia denied the accusations of spying. However, a DAS statementread, “It is a serious and troubling fact that the Ministry of Interiorof Venezuela has in its possession DAS intelligence documents.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said the DAS statementamounted to an admission that Colombia was carrying out espionageagainst neighbouring countries. “The most serious aspect is that theColombian government ended up accepting the validity of the documentsthat were presented before the National Assembly,” he told a pressconference on Monday.

Maduro said that the documents were obtained from the three men charged with spying for Bogota.

The minister added that Venezuela is evaluating submitting thedocuments to international bodies to “stop the abuses of the Colombianoligarchy, which aims to use the Colombian state to underminestability, peace and democracy in our sovereign countries.”

Maduro also commented on the Colombia-US military deal, which wasfinalised on October 30, saying it was “shameful” and there was noguarantee that the actions of U.S. troops would be limited to Colombianterritory.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government ordered the closure of theborder between Tachira state and Colombia today after two members ofthe Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), who were on routine duty at thePalotal checkpoint, were shot dead.

According to a report by the VTV correspondent in the area, theVenezuelan border patrols were performing routine tasks at 3.30pm onMonday when a group of four gunmen suddenly appeared and shot SergeantMajor Gerardo Zambrano and First Sergeant Buyssi Semidy Segnini Lópezin the back.

One suspect, Johan Manuel Mora Rodríguez, 20, has been arrested in relation to the incident.

The chief of the Regional Command in Tachira, Brigadier GeneralFranklin Márquez, said it could not be ruled out that the death of thetwo soldiers was an act of retaliation for strict measures beingimposed by Venezuela in the fight against gasoline and food smugglingto Colombia.

“Lamentably our two soldiers were vilely assassinated by groups thatoperate in the frontier zone, trying to spread fear and create anatmosphere of insecurity,” he said.

The border region is the most conflict-ridden zone in Venezuela, asColombian paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas, as well as extortionrings and smuggling gangs all operate there.