JORGE RUEDA, AP, March 5, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuela is starting to block billions of dollars in Colombian imports and investment under orders from President Hugo Chavez, threatening economic havoc in both nations in response to a Colombian military attack on rebels hiding in Ecuador.
Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa demanded international condemnation of Colombia's U.S.-allied government on Wednesday night, while Chavez predicted a sharp fall in the $6 billion in annual Colombia-Venezuela trade: "That's coming down."
"We aren't interested in Colombian investments here," Chavez said, standing beside Correa. "Of the Colombian businesses that are here in Venezuela, we could nationalize some."
He said Venezuela will search for other countries like Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina to replace products imported from Colombia. Noting that Colombia traditional supplies food to Venezuela, he said now "we can't depend (on Colombia) not even for a grain of rice."
Though Venezuelan officials express confidence they will quickly find replacements for Colombian goods, government critics says the move is bound to worsen shortages of basic foods from milk to chicken that were an annoyance in Venezuela well before a dispute that has ballooned into one of South America's most serious diplomatic crises in years.
Chavez and Correa warned on Wednesday that a regional diplomatic crisis would not end without clear international condemnation of Colombia's government for Saturday's deadly cross-border strike against leftist rebels.
In a bid to defuse a dispute that has seen Venezuela move tanks and troops to its border, the Organization of American States on Wednesday approved a watered-down resolution calling the raid on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia camp a violation of Ecuador's sovereignty.
But Correa said that while welcome, the resolution was not enough and his government still wants explicit condemnation.
"The OAS resolution pleases us. We are pleased, but not satisfied," Correa said as he visited Chavez in Caracas. "This isn't going to cool down until the aggressor is condemned."
Chavez called the attack by Colombia's U.S.-allied government a "war crime." The bombing and raid killed a top rebel leader, Raul Reyes, and 23 other guerrilla fighters who had set up a base just over a mile from the border inside Ecuador.
Colombia has accused both Chavez and Correa of ties with the leftist rebels, and said that was shown by documents found on a laptop seized at the bombed rebel camp.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said he would not mobilize troops or allow his nation to be drawn into war with his neighbors.
Meanwhile, Venezuela said most of the 9,000 soldiers mobilized by Chavez had reached the Colombian border area Wednesday. Ecuador said it sent 3,200 soldiers to its border with Colombia on Monday.
Chavez blamed the crisis on the U.S. "empire and its lackeys" — Colombia's conservative government — saying they pose a constant threat of war in the region.
On Wednesday, the Washington-based OAS declared the attack a violation of Ecuador's sovereignty and called for OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza to lead a delegation to both countries to ease tensions. But the resolution stopped short of explicitly condemning the assault. The United States was the only OAS nation offering Colombia unqualified support.
Reyes' captured laptop was full of documents that indicate FARC political ties to both Chavez and Correa, officials said.
"This is the first time that we've stumbled across something coming from the FARC drawing such a straight line" between the rebels and Chavez, said Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon, who said American experts would soon examine the computer's hard drive. "
Chavez laughed as he dismissed Colombian accusations that the laptop's documents show he gave $300 million to the FARC and conspired with the rebels to embarrass Colombia's government.
Other documents released by Colombia suggest Reyes was secretly negotiating with representatives of France and other European nations to win freedom for hostages including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy appealed directly to the rebels in an interview broadcast Wednesday night on Colombia's RCN television. He said Betancourt's release could persuade countries to no longer consider the FARC a terror group.
"If they let Ingrid Betancourt die, of course, there will be no discussion about that," he said in comments dubbed over in Spanish. "If they free Ingrid Betancourt, maybe some place in the world will see them a little differently."
In the Venezuelan town of San Antonio on Wednesday, soldiers marched through sugarcane fields with assault rifles, watching children dressed in school uniforms splash their way across the river that separates the two countries.
While many cargo trucks from Colombia have been turned away in recent days, traffic continued to flow across border bridges. And the military said it had no orders to close the border.
"Any disruption in the significant trade between Colombia and Ecuador/Venezuela will be temporary," predicted David Scott Palmer, director of Latin American studies at Boston University. For Colombia, he said, "there is political fallout in bilateral relations with Ecuador, and a renewal of tension with Venezuela, but I would expect both to be temporary."
Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker in San Antonio, Venezuela; Toby Muse in Cucuta, Colombia; Nestor Ikeda in Washington; Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador; and Fabiola Sanchez and Ian James in Caracas contributed to this report.