Colombia's oil industry attack exposes perilous Venezuela-Colombia overlap
Petroleumworld 04 01 2019
Colombian military and oil installations came under attack from just inside Venezuela this week, highlighting the perilous overlap between Venezuelan turmoil and Colombia's long-running internal conflict.
In a span of 10 minutes on 26 March, Colombia´s military fended off 14 improvised grenades and live fire from across the Arauca river on the border. Seven of the devices fell in the vicinity of US independent Occidental´s Arauca upstream operations, four around army installations and three at the navy´s riverine units, a navy admiral told Argus . One navy infantryman was injured. No material damage was reported. Occidental declined to comment.
The targets were located about 100m from the border and close to the origin of the 220,000 b/d Caño Limón-Coveñas crude pipeline, a frequent target of domestic attacks by Colombian insurgent groups.
The cross-border incident, considered unusual if not unprecedented, shows how Colombia and Venezuela have become dangerously intertwined by a network of non-state actors. Recent years have witnessed frequent brief incursions by Venezuela´s national guard that Colombia´s better trained and equipped military sees mostly as nuisance provocations. In contrast, the attack this week was likely carried out by Colombia´s National Liberation Army (ELN) or dissidents of the disbanded Farc group, the military says. These Colombian insurgents have long been known to take refuge in Venezuelan territory, but they are now seen as actively supported by Venezuela, where the national guard and others are complicit in smuggling, drug-trafficking and illegal gold mining.
Colombia´s foreign ministry issued a statement on 27 March vehemently rejecting the "terrorist attack". Venezuela´s government has not commented.
ELN is exploiting the crisis in Venezuela and the migratory flows to gather strength, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week. The spillover of the conflict is also threatening long-term US-Colombian anti-drug efforts, he said.
Colombia´s 2,200km border with Venezuela is notorious for drug trafficking and smuggling of fuel and other goods such as cattle and cheese. But historically the porous border has also been a lifeline, first for Colombians fleeing their country's violent internal conflict in the 1980s-90s, and more recently for Venezuelans fleeing hunger and repression.
Venezuela's government barricaded the main border crossings just before the opposition´s failed attempt to bring in humanitarian aid on 23 February. Since then, the aid – mostly provided by the US -- remains warehoused in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta. Thousands of Venezuelans continue to enter Colombia every day through clandestine crossings, either to purchase food and medicine no longer available in Venezuela, or as part of a refugee wave that is forecast to officially approach 2mn people in Colombia this year, with another 2mn spread across the region.
Inside Venezuela, basic services have largely collapsed , bringing the national oil industry down with them. Although power has been restored to parts of Caracas following a second catastrophic blackout that started on 25 March, much of Venezuela still lacks electricity and associated water supply. Schools and offices have been closed for most of this week.
Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaidó has called for more anti-government street protests tomorrow, and has summoned supporters to mobilize for a 6 April "simulation" of what he vaguely dubs Operation Liberty. President Nicolas Maduro, who is no longer recognized by most western countries, has called for pro-government marches at the same time. Maduro´s national controller Elvis Amoroso yesterday barred Guaidó from holding public office for 15 years, a measure Guaidó brushed off as a farce.
In Washington, the Organization of American States (OAS) is poised to vote on whether to recognize Guaidó´s interim presidency, a move that would further isolate Maduro. A 27 March OAS vote in favor of a humanitarian aid resolution initiated by Colombia was seen as a test of support following US President Donald Trump´s meeting with several Caribbean leaders in Florida last week.
Starting on 1 April, the US takes over the rotating presidency of the OAS from El Salvador, setting the stage for a pro-Guaidó vote.
In remarks yesterday, the US State Department´s Venezuela envoy Elliott Abrams said "the US has no timetable" for ousting Maduro. "We are supporting interim president Guaidó for as long as it takes." The weekend arrival of a Russian military contingent and Russia´s role in Venezuela are "very unconstructive", he said.
Russia´s foreign ministry said its "specialists" are there to service military equipment under a bilateral technical cooperation agreement. "They are not changing the balance of forces in the region. And they are not threatening anyone, unlike Washington." Russia and Venezuela will hold regularly scheduled bilateral cooperation talks next week. Russia´s state-controlled Rosneft is among the main lifters of Venezuelan crude, which is partly earmarked to pay oil-backed loans.
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