Spanish Tank Sale Called Off, but Colombia-Venezuela Tension Remains

CARACAS – Spain took a step aimed at smoothing relations between Bogota and Caracas by canceling the sale of 40 French-made AMX-30 tanks to the Colombian government. If the sale had gone through, the tanks’ guns would likely have pointed toward the Venezuelan border.

This week, however, a new snag emerged in bilateral relations, with the announcement that Venezuela is planning to tender out oil and gas exploration blocks off its northwest coast, where it borders with Colombia.

Spain’s secretary of state for foreign affairs, Bernardino León, told the Spanish Senate on Monday that the AMX-30s "could have been deployed along the border with Venezuela, an area where Spain would prefer to see smooth ties."

According to León, the sale was canceled because his country wants to ensure that "attempts to increase security, while completely legitimate, do not lead to a breaking of balance and the unleashing of an arms race that will only create more tension" in the Andean region.

Back in March, newly designated Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos advised that the sale of weapons to Colombia would be reviewed. In June, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero told Colombian President Alvaro Uribe that the tanks would not be delivered.

Rodríguez Zapatero, a socialist, "is adopting the policy that has traditionally been promoted by the social democrats in Germany: refusing to sell weapons to regions in conflict," IPS was told by Alberto Müller, a Venezuelan retired general and political analyst.

The projected sale of weapons had been agreed between the right-wing Uribe administration and Zapatero’s predecessor, the center-right José María Aznar.

Müller and former defense and foreign minister Fernando Ochoa had been warning since March that Colombia’s acquisition of more tanks would upset the fragile balance with Venezuela.

Venezuela has outranked its neighbor in terms of armored combat vehicles, with 81 AMX-30s and around 20 AMX-15s, while Colombia has bulked up with anti-tank units, like the dozens of Black Hawk helicopters supplied by the United States as part of Plan Colombia, an anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy.

A Latin American diplomat who was once a tank officer told IPS that Colombia’s claims that it needed the tanks to fight the guerrillas were "ridiculous, because armored combat vehicles are useless in the kind of irregular warfare that is waged in mountains and jungles."

Nevertheless, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Defense Minister Jorge García placed little importance on Colombia’s attempt to acquire more tanks, saying it was a "normal" development, while Foreign Minister Jesús Pérez said it was "not at all a sign of conflict."

On the other hand, political analyst Alberto Garrido viewed the projected tank purchase as part of "a strategy adopted by Uribe out of fear that his regular forces will be caught like the sandwich filling between Colombia’s guerrillas and an eventual Venezuelan attempt to export its Bolivarian revolutionary project" – a reference to the left-leaning Chávez’s self-styled "peaceful social revolution" in favor of the poor.

The U.S. government of George W. Bush has accused Venezuela of not doing enough to fight terrorism, and the international media frequently refer to Chávez’s supposed ties to Colombia’s insurgent groups, which have never been proven.

Tension between Colombia and Venezuela increased in May, when 130 Colombians dressed in Venezuelan military uniforms were captured on a farm near Caracas.

The Venezuelan government said they were Colombian paramilitaries working for extremist factions of Venezuela’s anti-Chávez opposition movement and right-wing sectors in Colombia.

According to the government, they were waiting to receive weapons in order to attack military installations to precipitate a coup or to kill Chávez.

After Chávez’s victory in the Aug. 15 recall referendum, there has been greater support among political leaders for relaxed relations in the Andean region. But Müller insists that "as long as there is armed conflict in Colombia, there will be unrest in the region and on the border with its neighbors."

That is because "there is a civil war in Colombia, which is following the pattern of any war, an escalation in both intensity and geographical scope, although there have been some promising signs of possible contacts between the Uribe government and the guerrillas."

Müller also believes that after more than a century of doing politics in very different ways – more conservative and elitist in Colombia, more open and populist in Venezuela, in his opinion – the two countries will continually lock horns over differing interests.

This week, a new source of friction appeared on the horizon, as Caracas announced that it will grant licenses for oil and gas exploration in a number of blocks off its northwest coast. The offer has already attracted the interest of Statoil of Norway and the French firm Total.

Venezuelan Information Minister Andrés Izarra said on Monday that the blocks to be auctioned off have yet to be delimited, but there are already alarm bells going off in Colombia, in the event that the licenses infringe on areas of the Gulf of Venezuela that are still being disputed by the two nations.

For four decades, bilateral ties have been strained by the failure to agree on an official delimitation. In August 1987, the two countries were on the brink of war when the Colombian warship Caldas, armed with Exocet missiles, spent nine days anchored in a section of the Gulf that belongs to Venezuela, as far as Venezuela is concerned.

According to the Caracas daily Tal Cual, the Colombian Foreign Ministry has already sent a diplomatic note to the Venezuelan government, stating its concern that Venezuela may grant concessions for oil exploration in "areas that fall under the sovereignty and jurisdiction" of Colombia.

Up to now, the petroleum industry in Venezuela – the world’s fifth largest oil exporter – has refrained from exploiting the offshore area to the northwest, precisely because of the ongoing border dispute.

In fact, the potential of this area is not even included on its maps. But the heightened global demand for oil and natural gas may have sparked a change in strategy.