- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2010

Colombia vigorously denied over the weekend that it was considering military action against Venezuela after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced Friday that he had ordered troops to the border and was “reviewing war plans.”

“Colombia has never thought of attacking its brother nation as the president of that country says, in a clear political deception of his own country,” Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s office said in a statement Saturday.

The latest verbal battle between Caracas and Bogota followed an emergency meeting of the Union of South American States on Thursday in Ecuador, which failed to end the escalating war of words between the neighboring nations.

The crisis began July 22 at the Organization of American States (OAS), where Colombia gave a multimedia presentation — complete with videos, photographs and GPS coordinates — offering evidence that Venezuela was harboring leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Mr. Chavez severed diplomatic relations with Bogota the same day, and Venezuelan officials have since rebuffed Colombian calls for an international investigation into the charges.

The Obama administration, which has generally kept a low profile in Latin America, has taken a somewhat hands-off approach to the dispute while echoing Bogota’s demand for an inquiry.

“Our bottom line is the Colombians made a serious presentation with some very serious allegations, and it ought to be treated in a serious way,” Kevin Whitaker, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in an interview.

Mr. Whitaker, who also serves as director of the State Department’s Office of Andean Affairs, added that the U.S. took no view of whether such an investigation should be conducted under the auspices of the OAS, the U.N. or one or more third-party countries.

Venezuelan officials have called the OAS presentation a “media show,” claiming they have debunked similar allegations over the years. “If you don’t like the media show,” Mr. Whitaker said, “then deal with the substance of what it is that Colombia’s presented.”

The Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with Venezuela last year, after a tit-for-tat expulsion of ambassadors that took place in the waning months of the Bush administration.

But relations between Washington and Caracas remain icy. Last Sunday, Mr. Chavez threatened to cut off oil supplies to the United States in the event of a Colombian attack.

“We’re following this very closely,” said Carl Meacham, an aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“What we have is one government [making] an accusation in a formal setting of issues that affect the security of that government,” he said. “And if it’s true that Venezuela is cooperating with organizations we call terrorist organizations, if it’s true that Venezuela is working with organizations that are interested in the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government in Colombia, it would require an international-law type of consequence.”

“The administration needs to be more explicit on what their reaction will be to the violations we’re talking about if they’re proven,” Mr. Meacham added.

The State Department classifies FARC as a foreign terrorist group.

Venezuelan officials have said they would consider restoring relations with Colombia on Saturday, when President-elect Juan Manuel Santos succeeds Mr. Uribe, who has led Colombia since 2002. Mr. Santos was Colombia’s defense minister in March 2008, when the country launched air strikes on a FARC base in Ecuador that killed the group’s second-in-command, Raul Reyes.