At the request of the United States, Colombia has temporarily suspended negotiations to sell 30,000 to 90,000 tons of beef to the Soviet Union, a deal that had been approved in principle by the government of President Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala before the United States found out about it late last month.
The Carter administration views the deal as another attempt by the Soviet Union to circumvent the partial grain and beef embargo the United States imposed last month in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The administration moved to block the Colombian beef sale on the grounds that it would help secure Soviet food supplies from a nontraditional source. Colombia had never before sold beef to Moscow, which the United States believes is vulnerable to a Western food embargo because of inadequate internal food production.
So far, Colombia has proved far more sympathetic to the U.S. position than two other South American countries, Argentina and Brazil, which have stepped up their sales of grain and soybeans to the Soviets after refusing to join in Western efforts to retaliate against the Soviet Union for its aggression in Afghanistan.
The administration has acknowledged that the Argentine and Brazilian sales could seriously undermine the impact of the partial U.S. embargo despite promises by Canada, Australia and the European Common Market not to "offset" the 17 million metric tons of grain the United States refused to sell the Soviet Union.
Colombia agreed to suspend its negotiations only temporarily. Its final decision on whether to sell beef to the Soviet could depend on the outcome of talks later this week between Agriculture Minister German Bula Hoyos and his counterpart in Venezuela, according to both Colombian government and U.S. diplomatic sources.
Venezuelan President Luis Herrera Campins closed his country to cheap Colombian beef imports last year in an effort to stimulate Venezuela's own cattle industry. His decision had a devastating impact on Colombia's ranchers, who were dependent on their traditional Venezuelan market.
"The Colombians would obviously like to sell meat, and they're in a hell of a bind with Venezuela," said one U.S. diplomat here. "But they are sympathetic with the U.S. government position and showing solidarity with the Western nations in light of the invasion of Afghanistan.
Bula Hoyos' trip to Venezuela, which as recently as six weeks ago would have been of little more than passing interest to the United States, has suddenly become significant to Washington because the Carter administration wants to avoid another "leak" in the food embargo.
The United States hopes that Venezuela will reopen its market to Colombia, according to U.S. diplomats here, thus relieving pressure the Turbay government faces from this country's economically important cattle industry to allow resumption of the negotiations suspended last month after the United States made its opposition to the beef sale known.
Colombia has asked the United States to help persuade Venezuela to change its policy and American diplomats in Bogota said "it would be logical to assume that Washington is considering" such friendly persuasion on Colombia's behalf.
If Bula Hoyos is unsuccessful, however, there is no guarantee that Colombia will not give private beef exporters here the go-ahead to resume negotiations with the Soviets, who have offered $2,500 a ton ($1.25 a pound) for frozen beef that would then be transported to the Soviet Union aboard Soviet ships from Barranquilla, Colombia's major Caribbean port.