CARACAS, Venezuela — Once again, President Hugo Chavez is up in arms over the possibility of a U.S.-backed invasion from Colombia and has threatened to halt oil shipments to the United States. On Sunday, Chavez said that he'd postponed a trip to Cuba because the likelihood of an invasion is the highest it's been "in 100 years."
"The Yankee Empire is threatening us," Chavez told a crowd of red-clad supporters in a televised speech. "If there is an armed aggression against Venezuela, we will suspend oil shipments to the United States, even if we have to eat rocks."
The U.S. State Department denied the allegations. But Chavez's ministers quickly went into overdrive in an effort to back his claims.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said in televised comments from Cuba that the state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, was on "yellow alert" and ready to halt shipments if necessary. Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe "hates the Venezuelan people," and called him a "pawn of the United States." And Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro took off on a tour of Latin American countries including Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay to warn of an imminent invasion.
Why all the fuss?
Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, said Chavez's rhetoric comes in response to Uribe's accusations last week that Venezuela is sheltering leftist rebels from Colombia.
Chavez immediately broke diplomatic ties with Colombia over its accusation that members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a leftist rebel group, are residing in Venezuela and warned that Uribe's government could provoke a war.
"This is the way Chavez reacts when he's put on the defensive," Shifter said. "So the debate isn't about how do we deal with the FARC in Venezuela, but how do we avoid a conflict between Venezuela and Colombia."
Chavez has repeatedly made such threats — often following Colombian allegations that his government has links to FARC guerrillas.
But while trade between the two nations has fallen dramatically in recent years, Chavez's repeated threats of war — along with warnings that a recent agreement allowing the United States to expand its presence on Colombian military bases threatens Venezuela's sovereignty — have amounted to very little.
"I don't think Colombia is in a state of high alert," Shifter said, adding that while Chavez can be unpredictable, "they've seen this movie before."
Margarita Lopez Maya, an historian and professor at Venezuela's Central University, said the diplomatic crisis is a "game" initiated by Colombia's efforts to prove that Venezuela was harboring FARC guerrillas. She called Chavez and Uribe "two sides of the same coin."
"They are always going around looking for confrontation," said Lopez Maya, who is an opposition candidate in upcoming legislative elections. "In practice, it doesn't mean anything."
Chavez, who has a "radical anti-imperialist discourse," is now trying to monopolize the situation in order to boost nationalist sentiment before September's elections, she added.
Even if Chavez's government were serious about cutting off oil shipments to the United States, analysts said such a move would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The United States is the top buyer of Venezuela's oil and houses special refineries needed to process its extra-heavy crude.
"Venezuela depends now more than ever on the oil that it sends to the United States," said economist Pavel Gomez in Caracas, pointing out that Venezuela is losing income on preferential shipments sent to allies such as Cuba. "The possibility that this will materialize is practically nonexistent."
In Caracas, even citizens who embrace Chavez's rhetoric question the possibility of such a maneuver. Alicia Rodriguez, 51, who sells newspapers, candy and other goods from a kiosk in the city center, said Chavez is "defending the nation."
"But I don't know what countries he would send the oil to ... The United States needs Venezuela, and Venezuela needs the United States," she said.
Venezuela is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States, sending roughly 900,000 barrels of oil a day, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Wolfgang Coronado, a 48-year-old self-employed businessman, expressed still more skepticism. "In reality, there is no [threat of] war," he said. "This man isn't rational."
Lopez Maya said the conflict represents a polarization that has long been prevalent in Venezuela's relations with Colombia, one she hopes both nations — which share a history and cross-border immigration — will learn to overcome.
"There's always a show, a spectacle," Lopez Maya said. "These are very different political projects that have to work to find a way to live together."