For the last two weeks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has — mostly — bitten his tongue, as his Venezuelan counterpart has accused him of everything from cowardice to plotting to “destroy” the socialist administration, amid an ongoing border crisis.
On Wednesday, Santos pushed back. In a broadcast speech, he accused the neighboring country of being an economic basketcase and said Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro wouldn’t even take phone calls to try to resolve the dispute.
“I am not destroying the Bolivarian Revolution,” Santos said, responding to one of Maduro’s many accusations. “The Bolivarian Revolution is destroying itself…The problems of Venezuela — I repeat again and again — are made in Venezuela, not in Colombia.”
Santos also said that he would not be provoked by Maduro’s accusations.
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“Disrespect, insults, antics and lies aren’t on my radar,” he said.
The heated response comes as Venezuela has unilaterally shut down major border crossings over the last two weeks, sparking chaos along the frontier. The administration has also deported more than 1,400 Colombians, and more than 18,000 more have swarmed across the border fearing reprisal.
Maduro has accused Colombians of bleeding his country by smuggling out subsidized gasoline and other food items, and he’s increasingly put the blame for the country’s soaring crime on Colombian gangs. In recent days, he said Santos was turning a blind-eye to a paramilitary plot to assassinate him.
Colombia’s president has said he’s willing to talk to Maduro as long as he respects the “fundamental rights” of those he’s deporting. Hammering that point home Wednesday, Santos ran video of deported Colombians saying they were “treated like dogs” and had left with nothing but the clothes on their back.
He also recounted meeting a deported octogenarian in Cúcuta who asked Santos to help her recover the rosary she left in Venezuela, because she didn’t want to “die without it.”
Santos said he spoke with Uruguayan President Tabaré Vásquez who offered to mediate between the two nations, but that Maduro would not take his or, the Uruguayan’s, calls.
Maduro has insisted he will meet with Santos “anytime and anywhere” and challenged him to “show his face,” but has said that Colombia’s conditions on the meeting were unacceptable.
In a full-page ad in Wednesday’s New York Times, Venezuela said the border closures were necessary due to “serious threats to our national and economic security.”
Contraband is a mainstay along the border. In particular, Venezuela’s gasoline (the cheapest in the world) can be sold in Colombia at a 3,000 percent markup.
Venezuela said the partial border closing had saved the country 260,000 gallons of gasoline a day. It also said that 30 percent of all food imported to Venezuela is smuggled out the country and that 40 percent of all goods end up as contraband.
The lawless border area is also a hotbed for drug traffickers, the government said.
Santos acknowledged the problems but said they cut both ways.
“Yes, we’re the world’s largest producer of cocaine and we’re fighting that,” he said. “But [Venezuela] needs to find out where those planes loaded with cocaine are flying out from.”
Multiple reports have suggested that Venezuela has become a hub for cocaine-laden flights bound for the United States and Europe.
“Closing the border is not the fault of Colombia,” Santos said. “And every day that goes by, it’s clear that there are other interests at play.”
That seemed to be a nod to those who have suggested that the border tensions are aimed at distracting attention from Venezuela’s domestic problems ahead of December’s key legislative election.
Despite sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves, the country is struggling to keep its people fed. Triple-digit inflation and shortages of basic goods and food have soured the national mood.
The latest crisis was sparked Aug. 19 when three Venezuelan guards on a contraband mission were ambushed. Maduro said Colombian paramilitaries were behind the attack and shut the border that connects the Colombian town of Cúcuta with San Cristobal del Táchira. On Monday, Venezuela shut the Paraguachón pass, connecting Colombia’s Guajira to Venezuela’s Zulia state.