March 21, 2009

Venezuela and Colombia Deepen Diplomatic and Economic Ties

March 20th 2009, by James Suggett -

( -- Venezuelan Foreign Relations Minister Nicolás Maduro and Colombian Foreign Relations Minister Jaime Bermúdez met in Caracas Wednesday to discuss commercial relations and anti-drug policy, demonstrating the first efforts at reconciliation between the two countries since a heated exchange in early March over Colombia's justification of cross-border raids on guerrilla rebels.

"Venezuela and Colombia are two governments with the willingness and capacity to approach one another, broadly discuss and concretize their ideas to move forward on projects that benefit both countries in the midst of uncertainty in the world economy," said Maduro during a press conference alongside Bermúdez.

"The world can observe a plural Latin America agreeing upon and advancing on its own path," Maduro added.

Regarding energy policy, the two ministers discussed their policies on biofuels, electricity, and the environmental impact of energy production and consumption, and moved forward on plans to build an oil pipeline from Venezuela's Orinoco Oil Belt to Colombia.

They also exchanged ideas about how to better organize the gasoline trade at the border, where the smuggling of Venezuela's heavily subsidized gasoline thrives.

Maduro and Bermúdez also spoke about the automobile industry, including the potential expansion of import and export quotas between the two nations and a technology sharing agreement to promote the conversion of cars to dual gasoline-natural gas engines.

A joint investment fund of $200 million and agricultural stimulus were also on the agenda Wednesday, but the ministers said they plan to consult with their respective presidents, Álvaro Uribe of Colombia and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, before making any final decisions.

The potential fund will be "a new bi-national financial institution that is aimed, overall, at maintaining and growing the flow of investments in the midst of the current economic crisis that spreads across the world," Maduro told the press. "In the first semester of this year we hope to make decisions on economic accords aimed at complementary, integral commercial development," he said.

Minister Bermúdez thanked Venezuela for supporting its successful bid for the presidency of the Association of Caribbean States in January. Regarding Wednesday's meeting, he said, "There is definitely an enormous agenda that obligates us to advance side-by-side in common projects, even more so with the financial crisis."

Bermúdez asked Venezuela to accompany Colombia in the struggle to halt drug trafficking, which has been a major source of funding for both sides of Colombia's four-decade civil conflict between rebel guerrillas and the government.

"It is fundamental to emphasize that a definitive triumph in the fight against drug trafficking will be achieved with the un-conditional support of the entire international community," said Bermúdez.

Maduro said Venezuela is committed to combating drug trafficking through Venezuela, highlighting the sharp increase in drug interdictions and the eradication of drug laboratories from Venezuelan territory over the past three years. Maduro also invited the director of Venezuela's National Anti-Drug Office, Néstor Reverol, to participate in Wednesday's meetings.

In response to Venezuela's repeated warnings to Colombia to keep drug-related fumigations out of Venezuelan territory, Bermúdez promised not to fumigate within ten kilometers of the border. "There are no fumigations foreseen along the border with Venezuela, but we do plan to fumigate in the north of Santander in municipalities that lie as close as 25 kilometers from the border," he said.

Both ministers said they will consider the possibility of coordinating drug policy directly with one another.

The friendly tone of Wednesday's meeting contrasted sharply with the diplomatic clash earlier this month after Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said Colombia's bombardment of an encampment of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Ecuadoran territory one year ago was a justifiable act of self-defense.

Chávez said Santos's declaration threatens to destabilize the region and violates a peace-keeping agreement signed by all South American heads of state shortly after last year's attacks.

President Chávez has been an enthusiastic advocate of regional integration initiatives as a tool to endure the effects of the global economic crisis. Colombia participates in one of these integration blocs, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), but not in others, such as the cooperation-based trade bloc called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an alternative to U.S.-dominated free trade deals.

Despite periodic conflicts and heated exchanges, President Chávez and President Uribe have met regularly over the past five years to sign economic accords and craft large-scale infrastructure projects that are a part of South American Inter-Regional Infrastructure (IIRSA), which are financed in part by the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank.

Maduro highlighted this history of cooperation Wednesday. "This meeting is the continuation of the ongoing effort to contribute to the positive work agenda, an agenda of peace and integration between both governments," said Maduro.

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