January 25, 2008
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's tirade against Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe might be an attempt to strengthen his hand politically, according to analysts.
CARACAS -- A stream of invective by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez branding Colombian President Alvaro Uribe a ''liar,'' ''coward'' and ''pawn of the U.S. empire'' has tumbled relations between the two neighbors.
Analysts say Chávez is acting partly from personal animosity toward Uribe -- who embarrassed the Venezuelan by halting his mediation with Colombia's FARC guerrillas in November -- and partly to strengthen his hand politically at home and abroad after several recent reversals.
''The main thing going is that Chávez feels really frustrated,'' said Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia. ``He has been shot down on a number of things.''
Uribe has not returned fire and this week continued a trip to Europe, where he has been well received.
No public official in either country has expressed concerns that the verbal conflict could lead to an armed conflict. But a break in diplomatic relations or a cutoff in trade between the two countries remains possible, analysts say.
Tensions between the two countries last spiked in 1987, when a border dispute along the Gulf of Venezuela led both sides to mobilize their armed forces. But for the past five years, Chávez and Uribe have maintained mostly good ties despite their political and personal differences.
Uribe is a button-down conservative who speaks English fluently and has close economic and military relations with the United States. Chávez is a pugnacious socialist who sees himself as leading a region-wide movement to counter U.S. influence.
Relations began worsening in November, when Uribe canceled Chávez's mediation in a prisoner swap between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Uribe said Chávez had broken protocol by speaking directly to the head of the Colombian army. The two leaders then exchanged sharp words.
Relations between the two countries seemed headed back toward normalcy earlier this month, especially after Chávez on Jan. 10 helped secure the release of two key Colombian hostages held for six years by the FARC. Uribe even praised him afterward.
But only a day later, Chávez stunned Colombians by asking other nations to stop branding the FARC as terrorists and call it an army. Chávez followed up on Sunday by repeatedly attacking Uribe on his nationally televised program, Hello, Mr. President.
''That man doesn't deserve to be president,'' Chávez concluded. ``Uribe is suitable to be a mafia boss.''
The government said this week that it was sending 1,200 troops to the border, ostensibly to crack down on the smuggling of Venezuelan goods to Colombia.
Later reports said the troops were already based along the border but were redirected to anti-smuggling duty.
Herbert Koeneke, a political science professor at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, said Chávez is trying to distract Venezuelans from the Dec. 2 defeat of a plebiscite in which he sought to expand his already vast powers, and from recent negative news reports about high crime and a scarcity of basic goods such as milk.
''It's a smoke screen,'' Koeneke said.
Rafael Nieto, a former vice minister of internal security under Uribe, said by telephone from Bogotá that Chávez wants to weaken Uribe as part of his grand strategy to expand his influence throughout Latin America.
''The Colombian government is a major obstacle,'' Nieto said, ``because of Uribe's high popularity, it is center-right politically, is close to the U.S and wants a free-market deal with the U.S.''
Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst with New York-based Eurasia Group, said any rupture in relations would hurt both countries but perhaps especially Colombia, because 15 percent of its exports go to Venezuela. In contrast, only 1 percent of Venezuela's exports go to Colombia.
''The local industrial community in Colombia is pressing Uribe not to do anything that could damage bilateral trade with Venezuela,'' Esteruelas said. ``What leaves some room for hope is that the Uribe government doesn't want to respond to the attacks