November 26, 2007
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez initiated an exchange of words with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, calling him a liar.
CARACAS -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called Colombian President Alvaro Uribe a liar on Sunday, and Uribe wasted no time in launching a strong verbal counter-attack, as relations between the two neighbors sank to a low not seen in at least two years.
Chávez initiated the exchange of words one week before Venezuelans will decide in a polarizing national referendum that would amend Venezuela's Constitution to allow him to tighten his grip on power and be given the right to seek reelection indefinitely.
Chávez told military leaders, ministers and other supporters on Sunday that he was putting relations with Colombia ''in the freezer,'' and also said he was freezing relations with Spain until King Juan Carlos apologizes to him. Chávez has been angry with Spain since the king told Chávez two weeks ago to ''shut up'' at a presidential summit in Chile.
It was not clear Sunday night whether Chávez was simply trying to whip up nationalistic fervor against Colombia and Spain to gain votes since polls show that he could suffer a stinging defeat in the national referendum. Uribe on Sunday accused Chávez of playing to a domestic audience, saying Chávez was ``using the old trick of stimulating Venezuelan hate against Colombia and the government of Colombia to win favor with voters.''
Beginning with his election as president in 1998, Chávez has shown an unerring instinct at formulating a message that has won the support of Venezuelan voters.
Chávez's stated reason for teeing off on Uribe Sunday was Uribe's decision on Friday to end Chávez's efforts to win the freedom of hostages held by FARC guerrillas in Colombia. Uribe said Chávez had broken the rules of engagement by discussing the possible prisoner swap directly with the commander of Colombia's armed forces.
Chávez fired back Sunday.
''I really, truly believe that the Colombian government doesn't want peace,'' Chávez said, expressing anger that Uribe used intermediaries rather than dealing directly with the Venezuelan president.
''Why don't you show your face?'' Chávez said. ``President Uribe is lying . . . in a shameless, horrible, ugly way. I think Colombia deserves another president, it deserves a better president.''
He added, ``Everyone should be alert in relation to Colombia -- economic relations -- the businesses Colombians have here and the businesses we have there. Commercial relations, all of that is going to be harmed. It's lamentable.''
The two political leaders have maintained good relations because of strong trade between the two countries and the need to cooperate on energy and border issues.
Still, they are political opposites. Chávez is a leftist, anti-free market enemy of the United States while Uribe is a conservative seeking a free trade agreement with the United States.
Speaking as if he were talking directly to Chávez, Uribe speaking at a town hall asked him not to inflame tensions in Latin America and accused Chávez of promoting an ''expansionist'' foreign policy but said it ``would not gain any traction in Colombia.''
Uribe also said Chávez was more interested in ``creating the possibility of a terrorist-influenced government in Colombia than gaining peace and helping us overcome the tragedy of those who have been kidnapped.''
While Chávez repeatedly accuses the United States of being imperialist by trying to influence Latin American nations, Uribe said it was Chávez who is being imperialistic by spending money elsewhere on the continent.
The exchange between the two presidents caught many observers by surprise.
''I can't remember this kind of ping-pong exchange of words being so sharp between the two countries,'' former Colombian Foreign Minister Rodrigo Pardo told Venezuela's Globovision TV station. ``Both presidents need to lower their tone.''