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.

Simon Bolivar International Bridge on the Venezuela-Colombia Border (YVKE)

Caracas, November 3rd 2009 ( – 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.

On October 14 Venezuela’s Ministry of Agriculture and Land decided to restrict the entry of Colombian agricultural products and the issuing of sanitary certificates on Colombian animal and vegetable products.

In response, Colombia filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organisation’s Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures last Friday.

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

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

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

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

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

The Venezuelan government, which aims to substitute Colombian agricultural imports with imports from Brazil and Argentina, has issued no formal statement on the WTO complaint. However, delegates from Venezuela indicated that they will review the case and hope to address the issue bilaterally.

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

Venezuela also announced the capture of two Colombians and a Venezuelan accused of spying for Colombia’s Administrative Security Department (DAS). Venezuelan Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami presented documents allegedly originating from the DAS, which showed that Colombia had sent spies to Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba as part of a CIA operation.

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

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said the DAS statement amounted to an admission that Colombia was carrying out espionage against neighbouring countries. “The most serious aspect is that the Colombian government ended up accepting the validity of the documents that were presented before the National Assembly,” he told a press conference 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 the documents to international bodies to “stop the abuses of the Colombian oligarchy, which aims to use the Colombian state to undermine stability, peace and democracy in our sovereign countries.”

Maduro also commented on the Colombia-US military deal, which was finalised on October 30, saying it was “shameful” and there was no guarantee that the actions of U.S. troops would be limited to Colombian territory.

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

According to a report by the VTV correspondent in the area, the Venezuelan border patrols were performing routine tasks at 3.30pm on Monday when a group of four gunmen suddenly appeared and shot Sergeant Major Gerardo Zambrano and First Sergeant Buyssi Semidy Segnini López in 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 General Franklin Márquez, said it could not be ruled out that the death of the two soldiers was an act of retaliation for strict measures being imposed by Venezuela in the fight against gasoline and food smuggling to Colombia.

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

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