July 11, 2008
CARACAS -- Smiles, handshakes and talk of peace and brotherhood put an official end to eight months of tension between Colombia and Venezuela, as Presidents Hugo Chávez and Alvaro Uribe met Friday at the Paraguaná oil refining complex, 300 miles west of Caracas.
If the encounter was a little cool -- there was no traditional Latin American embrace, for instance, just a pat on the shoulder -- that merely reflected the bitterness of the words exchanged since November. It was then that Uribe put a sudden end to Chávez's role as a mediator with the leftist FARC guerrillas.
Relations reached a fresh low after Colombia bombed a FARC camp inside Ecuador on March 1, killing the guerrilla group's second-in-command, Raúl Reyes. Chávez ordered 10 battalions, including tanks, sent to the Colombian border and withdrew his ambassador from Bogotá.
Calling the killing of Reyes a ''cowardly murder,'' Chávez accused the Colombian government of plotting with Washington to assassinate him and to provoke a war. He described Uribe as a ''mafia boss'' and a ''liar'' and said he was unfit to lead Colombia.
Uribe, in turn, said Chávez wanted to see a FARC government installed in Bogotá. He threatened to take him to the International Criminal Court for aiding and abetting terrorists, on the basis of evidence gleaned from thousands of computer files seized in the cross-border raid.
''We said harsh things about each other? Yes,'' Chávez said earlier this week. ``But brothers sometimes do.''
Officially, Friday's meeting, scheduled to last seven hours, focuses on trade, energy and infrastructure. The two leaders are to sign an
Trade between the two, which last year was worth some $6.5 billion -- 80 percent of it exports from Colombia to Venezuela -- is flourishing despite the war of words, but business leaders on both sides of the border fret that politics continually threatens to interfere.
''There's been a lot of tension, and this meeting is very necessary,'' said Luis Alberto Russián, executive president of the Venezuelan-Colombian Economic Integration Chamber in Caracas.
''What we need most of all is the reactivation of consultative and coordination mechanisms,'' he said.
At the closed-door meeting, Chávez and Uribe were also expected to discuss Chávez'salleged support for the FARC, even though politics was not officially on the agenda.
The Colombians say privately that top FARC leaders, including two members of the seven-man ''secretariat'' that controls the guerrilla organization, live in Venezuela under government protection -- something the Venezuelans deny.
Chávez went some way towards allaying these fears last month, when he called publicly on the FARC to lay down its arms and hand over all remaining hostages unconditionally.
This came after the death of the guerrillas' historic commander, Manuel Marulanda, but before the Colombian army rescued Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages - including three Americans contractors -- on July 2.
However, Uribe will be looking not just for soothing words but for specific commitments on Venezuela's part to discourage the guerrillas from using its territory as a rearguard.
On Thursday, the Venezuelan ranchers' federation, said it had evidence of three FARC camps inside Venezuela, in the south-western border state of Apure.
Other areas in which Uribe may seek Chávez's support include counter-narcotics activities and the dispute with Ecuador arising from the cross-border raid in March.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, a close ally of Chávez, has declined to restore relations with Bogotá since the raid, and the Colombians believe mediation by the Venezuelan president would help.
Aside from mending fences internationally, Chávez is also looking to improve his domestic standing ahead of key state and municipal elections due in November.
''In Venezuela, there are millions of people of Colombian origin. And they will be voting in November,'' said a foreign diplomat in Caracas who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
In supporting the FARC, the diplomat suggested, Chávez had miscalculated.
''He couldn't bring himself to accept that there is infinite hatred for the FARC in Colombia,'' the diplomat said.