Hugo Chavez (Photo by Thomas Coex/Newscom

Venezuela’s authoritarian populist president, Hugo Chavez, is threatening to cut off oil sales to the U.S. The latest dispute follows Colombia’s presentation of evidence regarding the presence of an estimated 1,500 FARC fighters on Venezuelan soil with the complicit support of Chávez and his government.

Thundered Chavez:

If there was any armed aggression against Venezuela from Colombian territory or from anywhere else, promoted by the Yankee empire, we would suspend oil shipments to the U.S. even if we have to eat stones here!

The likelihood of such an oil cutoff appears relatively remote. Colombia has no plans for aggressive action against Venezuela. The pragmatic Juan Manuel Santos takes office on August 7 and will chart a new course for close U.S. ally Colombia.

Venezuela is currently our fifth leading supplier of petroleum, which is sold largely under the CITGO label in the U.S. The findings of a 2006 Government Accountability Office report predicted that while disruptive for the U.S. economy, an oil shutoff would be far more devastating to Venezuela.

What Chávez hopes to do is “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.” In order words, he wants to hide support for FARC behind a screen of apocalyptic warnings and threats of energy blackmail.

The Venezuelan strongman undoubtedly faces mounting challenges at home. While Venezuelans may not be eating stones yet, they are facing the consequences of Chávez’s failures. Recently Newsweek offered the correct diagnosis.

The fact is that Chávez is desperate to distract Venezuelans from his disastrous mismanagement of the economy. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September, and analysts say the results are impossible to predict despite Chávez’s strong-arm political tactics and his muzzling of the media. The country’s inflation rate—more than 31 percent, according to the central bank—is among the world’s highest. Although it is Latin America’s biggest petroleum exporter, there are shortages of milk and other basic items at the supermarkets. And while the rest of the region has shaken off the global financial crisis, Venezuela remains mired in a recession that’s likely to continue through next year. No wonder Chávez has launched his own war of words.

The Obama Administration employed some of its toughest language to date as it zeroed in on Chávez’s backing of FARC.

The State Department labeled Venezuela’s breaking of diplomatic relations with Colombia “unfortunate” and a “petulant response.”

Venezuela, it said, has “very clear responsibilities to combat terrorism in the region and to support efforts within the OAS and within the UN to fight terrorism.” Because of U.S. concerns “about the links between Venezuela and the FARC that we [U.S.] have not certified Venezuela in recent years as fully cooperating with the U.S. and others in terms of these antiterrorism efforts.”

The State Department endorsed an “international investigation” of Colombia’s allegations and concluded “if Venezuela fails to cooperate in whatever follow-on steps are made, the U.S. and other countries will obviously take account of that.” (In non-diplomatic language: Venezuela will be closely watched and held accountable for its actions.)

Venezuela under Chávez’s reckless leadership joins with North Korea and Iran as the three nations most actively, most aggressively threatening U.S. interests and security. Having already earned a spot on the state sponsors of terrorism list, Chávez may find himself entering the danger zone if he cuts the oil umbilical cord that allows him to survive.