CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez threatened on Sunday to cut off oil sales to the United States if Venezuela is attacked by its U.S.-allied neighbor Colombia in a dispute over allegations that Venezuela gives haven to Colombian rebels.
Chavez made his warning in an outdoor speech to thousands of supporters, saying: "If there is any armed aggression against Venezuela from Colombian territory or anywhere else supported by the Yankee empire, we ... would suspend shipments of oil to the United States!"
"We wouldn't send another drop of oil to its refineries, not a single drop more!" Chavez shouted, adding that the United States is "the big one to blame for all the tension in this part of the world."
If actually carried out, such a threat would be a titanic economic blow for Chavez's government, which depends heavily on oil sales. The U.S. is the top buyer of oil from Venezuela, which is the United States' fifth biggest foreign supplier.
But Colombia has not threatened military action, and it's likely Chavez made the warning in part to put Washington and Bogota on notice that he will not stand for a more aggressive international campaign to denounce allegations that leftist Colombian rebels are finding refuge in Venezuela.
Chavez cut off diplomatic relations with Colombia on Thursday after outgoing President Alvaro Uribe's government presented photos, videos and maps of what it said were Colombian rebel camps inside Venezuela. Chavez called it an attempt to smear his government and said Uribe could be trying to lay the groundwork for an armed conflict.
In 2008, Chavez also warned of a possible war with Colombia after its military carried out a cross-border raid on a rebel camp in Ecuador that killed a guerrilla leader, Raul Reyes. Chavez on Sunday appeared to be giving a new warning that he wouldn't tolerate anything similar in Venezuela.
"Chavez's threat to halt oil sales if attacked by Colombia is credible in my view," said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.
While saying Chavez's threat could be intended as a deterrent against what he sees as a menace, Isacson added that it could also be a tactic to rally supporters and distract from Venezuela's problems like high inflation and crime two months ahead of key legislative elections.
"Troubles with Colombia give Chavez the chance to rally his base, and get out their vote, by playing the patriotism card," Isacson said.
The Colombian government denies seeking a military conflict. It says it went to the Organization of American States last week to present evidence about the rebels' presence in Venezuela because Chavez's government has not addressed the situation.
Chavez also said Sunday that he had canceled a trip to Cuba due to the tensions with Colombia. He said he believes based on his latest intelligence – which he did not reveal – that "the possibility of an armed aggression against Venezuelan territory" from Colombia is now more likely than ever.
He said separately in a newspaper column, however, that he will wait to see if Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, who takes office next month, expresses what Chavez deems a genuine willingness to ease the diplomatic conflict.
"We have to receive clear and unequivocal signals that there is a real political will in the new Colombian government to take up the path of dialogue again, without tricks," Chavez wrote.
Uribe has frequently feuded with the socialist Chavez, and Colombian officials have for years complained, mostly in private, that Venezuela has harbored leaders of its two main rebel groups.
Uribe's decision to release evidence of the claims comes as he prepares to leave office and as members of his inner circle have come under questioning by prosecutors for allegedly ordering illegal spying on domestic opponents, judges and journalists. Some critics say Uribe's public finger-pointing at Venezuela may be an attempt to distract public attention from scandals at home.
Santos, meanwhile, has stressed the importance of mending trade relations with Venezuela that overwhelmingly benefit Colombia's food producers. And Chavez has raised the possibility that relations could be restored under Santos.
Trade between Venezuela and Colombia has fallen about 70 percent since Chavez froze relations a year ago in response to Colombia's decision to grant the U.S. military expanded access to its military bases.
"The likely conclusion for now is that Santos will say something conciliatory around the time of his inauguration, Chavez will respond in kind, and relations will improve for a while," Isacson said. But he said Colombia's concerns about rebels hiding out in Venezuela are likely to continue and could flare up again.
"It's dangerous because even a misunderstanding or minor incident at the border could get out of hand, escalating and spreading to other parts of the border," Isacson said.
Chavez has often accused Washington of trying to unseat him since he survived a short-lived 2002 coup, and has emphasized that the U.S. threat could come through Colombia.
Chavez recalled the Iraq war on Sunday, saying "the Yankee empire is an expert at inventing anything" to topple a government it opposes.
U.S. officials have repeatedly denied Chavez's accusations of supporting plots against him, and have said Colombia is raising legitimate concerns to which Venezuela should respond.