- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

URENA, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez’s drive to halt food-smuggling into Colombia is hurting thousands of his own countrymen whose livelihood has depended on the free flow of goods across one of South America’s most-porous borders.

Venezuelans lined up near the border on Wednesday to buy food seized from smugglers — a momentary bonanza from Mr. Chavez’s crackdown on an underground economy that thrives on his government’s price controls.

But the fire sales of tons of cooking oil, rice, sugar and pasta to people with Venezuelan ID cards did little to quell anger along the border.

The campaign against contraband, enforced by stepped-up vehicle searches, has coincided with Mr. Chavez’s political spat with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and is designed to combat shortages in Venezuela.

Instead, it has badly affected the poor — Venezuelans and Colombians alike — who live across the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in Cucuta, Colombia’s fifth largest city, and depend on cheaper Venezuelan food staples.

Mr. Chavez ordered the crackdown less than two weeks ago as he escalated a war of words with Mr. Uribe by saying Colombia’s leftist rebels should be classified as insurgents, not terrorists.

Although relations between the neighbors are at an all-time low, legitimate cross-border trade is barely affected.

Commercial and familial ties across the border are so strong that few think the rhetoric will escalate into the armed conflict that Mr. Chavez accuses Colombia and the United States of fomenting.

Still, merchants and factories in the Venezuelan border town of San Antonio said their sales dropped 85 percent as a result of the smuggling crackdown. Cucuta residents have all but stopped crossing the border, where travel documents are rarely checked, to shop for basics that, thanks to Venezuelan price controls, cost half as much as goods in Colombia.

Isabel Castillo, president of San Antonio’s chamber of commerce, said that about 40 stores have closed after authorities said they confiscated about 5,000 tons of contraband nationwide.

The central square in nearby Urena is nearly deserted, killing sales for street vendors.

“It’s a conflict between those who are comfortable [Mr. Chavez and Mr. Uribe], but we’re the ones who are paying,” said Ofelia Sepulveda, who wonders how she will feed her three children.

National guard soldiers confiscated bags of flour and sugar from Mrs. Sepulveda. She said she was taking it home to Colombia, but others cart the cheap food to neighborhood stores on the Colombian side and resell it for a modest profit.

About 40 percent of cross-border trade passes through Urena and San Antonio, where many merchants accuse the Venezuelan guardsmen of selective enforcement — taking bribes to let tractor-trailer loads of contraband into Colombia, while taking sacks of food from people like Mrs. Sepulveda.

Venezuela’s 1,370-mile border with Colombia has always been more of a boon than a barrier to people on both sides. Thousands of Colombians live or work on the Venezuelan side and vice versa.

“Ninety percent of the cars here are Venezuelan,” said Lt. Col. Jorge Ivan Florez, the regional police commander in Cucuta. They cost half as much as Colombian cars, and Cucuta residents are allowed to have Venezuelan plates.

Critics say Mr. Chavez’s campaign to rally his countrymen against Colombia’s U.S.-allied government is simply an effort to distract Venezuelans from domestic problems. The price controls on many basic food items — an attempt to rein in 23 percent annual inflation — have contributed to shortages of everything from milk to cooking oil in this petroleum-rich nation.

But the contraband controls will end up hurting Mr. Chavez politically, said Alejandro Garcia, an anti-Chavez councilman in Urena.

“There are 100,000 Venezuelans in Cucuta,” Mr. Garcia said. “This is a whim of the president that’s going to cost him votes.”

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