By Jack Kimball and Nelson Bocanegra
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian exporters may not be
so keen to return to Venezuelan markets following prolonged
curbs on commerce by Caracas and fear of more cross-border
spats ahead, officials and analysts said Wednesday.
Venezuela's Hugh Chavez and Colombia's new leader, Juan
Manuel Santos, patched up diplomatic relations Tuesday after
the latest tit-for-tat argument, but Caracas did not,
crucially, re-establish bilateral commerce.
Since Chavez curbed cross-border trade last year -- in
protest over a deal by former President Alvaro Uribe to allow
U.S. troops more access to Colombian bases -- some Colombian
businesses now see Venezuela as too risky.
Exporters from Latin America's No. 4 oil producer have also
begun to search for other markets following the latest cut in
trade. Fiery leftist Chavez has slashed commerce before in his
up-and-down relationship with Colombia, a key U.S. ally.
"I would not expect a sharp pick-up in Colombian exports to
Venezuela in the near term. Moreover, Colombian producers will
be cautious as there is a risk that diplomatic/trade disputes
reappear," said Carola Sandy, an analyst with Credit Suisse.
"In the meantime, Colombian producers will probably
continue to seek different markets for their products, as they
have been doing for the past several months."
Colombian exports to Venezuela are expected to plummet to
$1 billion this year from $4 billion last year and $6 billion
in 2008, according to the government. Exports averaged around
$1 billion annually in 1995-2000 before rising five-fold up to
Cross-border sales, however, have fallen 70 percent in the
first half of 2010, and Colombian exporters say they are wary
of going back strongly given what they say is Chavez's
unpredictability. In addition, Venezuela still owes Colombian
companies around $800 million in debt.
"For us, paying the debt is more important than
re-establishing commerce because there are many companies with
a lot of distrust, very incredulous and worried about exporting
to Venezuela," said Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin.
The drop in trade, however, has helped keep Colombian
consumer prices muted and allowed the nation's central bank to
keep up a monetary stimulus plan to boost growth after being
hit by the world financial crisis in 2009.
Analysts say the cut in exports has shaved a percentage
point off Colombia's growth, but most agree that the drag on
Colombia's economy has run its course.
Economic growth in the Andean nation is expected to hit
between 3.5 percent and 5.5 percent this year from a slow 0.8
percent in 2009, according to the central bank.
For full coverage of the dispute [ID:nANDEAN]
Reuters Insider report http://r.reuters.com/rev34n
While some exporters might be scared away, Colombia still
shares a 1,375-mile (2,200-km) border with Venezuela -- which
was once its No. 2 trade partner -- and traders, especially in
consumer goods, will benefit from any commercial restoration.
"It could be that Venezuela isn't as important as it was,"
said Javier Diaz, president of the Association of External
Commerce of Colombia.
"(But) there's natural trade on the border and a natural
commerce (in) foodstuffs that will rapidly take on a positive
dynamic because of scarcity in Venezuela."
(Editing by Dan Grebler)