Venezuela-Colombia Conflict Put Region on Edge

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Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador have avoided outright war over a dispute involving Colombia's FARC guerrillas. But the saber-rattling made many in the region nervous.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Presidents of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador sealed a diplomatic agreement yesterday with a stiff handshake, ending the worst regional tension in years. Our government only wants peace, President Hugo Chavez said after a week in which he called Colombia a lackey of United States and sent thousands of troops to the border with Colombia. The move followed Colombia's incursion into Ecuador last week to hunt down members of the Colombian guerilla group FARC.

NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to the Venezuelan-Colombian border and reports on the apprehension and anger among Venezuelans and the hours leading up to the diplomatic breakthrough.

JULIE MCCARTHY: While President Chavez was maneuvering a testy compromise to end the dispute that threatened the region's stability, residents along the border were bracing for the worst. Venezuelan students who have gained recognition as a leading voice of opposition converged to express their dismay at the dangerous direction in which events seemed to be heading this past week.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

MCCARTHY: Three boisterous busloads of students from as far away as Caracas descended yesterday on the international crossing of the border town of San Antonio. One student after the next assailed President Chavez for having brought Venezuela so close to open aggression with its neighbor Colombia. These students say Colombia's leftist FARC rebels, with whom Chavez sympathizes, have terrorized the Colombian population and contributed to the lawlessness that has come to characterize life along the frontier. Pablo Briceno(ph) came from the University of Tachira, a state that shares a long border with Colombia.

SIMON: (Through translator) Well, everyone is pissed. Chavez is looking to keep his domination of these countries, to keep the power he holds over these Latin American countries, and this supposedly left-wing revolution in Colombia - the FARC are - it should be nothing to do with us.

MCCARTHY: So intense was the concern here for a diplomatic solution that employees scurried off factory floors to plant themselves in front of blaring televisions...

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION)

MCCARTHY: Carrying the proceedings of the Latin American leaders live as they finessed an end to the crisis. Chavez emerged with his objective achieved, a near continent-wide criticism of Colombia's raid over the border into Ecuador. The local Chamber of Commerce says in the weeklong dispute whereby Venezuela curtailed commercial activity with Colombia, businesses were losing $5 million a day. Chavez says that trade, which totaled $6 billion last year, will now be restored. Not a minute too soon for clothing manufacturer Jose Ayala(ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE)

MCCARTHY: Ayala's small sewing machine cluttered factory is one of hundreds in the area that combined, churned out four million pairs of blue jeans a year. The industry here depends on Colombia for everything from thread to zippers, says Ayala. His supply of denim was cut in half before the crisis was resolved.

But what Ayala and others along the border fear most in times of tension is losing their Colombian workforce. The people here have stitched together more than blue jeans. They have woven together two cultures and two countries. Ayala says that fact seems lost on President Chavez, who has habitually exchanged insults with Colombia's president and U.S. ally Alvaro Uribe.

SIMON: (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: It's very sad. We are brothers with Colombians, Ayala says. We have always lived by this trade between Venezuela and Colombia. All the tension disrupts our lives. We are his people, and President Chavez is not giving a good example.

Ayala's family endured the kidnapping of an 80-year-old aunt, a stunning sight of how precarious personal security along the border can be. Ayala says President Chavez may have provoked the tension to deflect attention away from such grave day-to-day problems afflicting Venezuelan society. Student Edward Bernaya(ph) agrees.

SIMON: (Spanish spoken)

MCCARTHY: If Chavez really wants to look after the sovereignty of Venezuela, he says, he needs to get rid of kidnappings, gangs and crime. But crime and food shortage is not withstanding. Venezuelans are breathing a bit easier today as tensions with Colombia subside.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, on the Venezuelan-Colombian border.

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