Venezuela, Colombia hold talks to repair ties

Por Venezuela Real - 11 de Julio, 2008, 17:10, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

July 11, 2008

PARAGUANA, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe took a stab at mending relations Friday after months of sniping that threatened billions of dollars in trade and unleashed a diplomatic crisis between Latin America's top U.S. opponent and closest U.S. ally.

Chavez, who just months ago called reconciliation impossible, said the talks were aimed at a "relaunch of cooperation, peace and integration of Latin America."

"We have a need to take up the path again and reactivate relations. Now that depends on many things," Chavez said, welcoming Uribe warmly before they began closed-door talks at the Paraguana oil refining complex on the Caribbean coast. It was their first one-on-one meeting since August.

Analysts said the two are setting aside their on-and-off feud because each benefits politically from normalized relations. The countries are key commercial partners, with $6 billion in trade last year, and the leaders were expected to sign accords to link the Andean neighbors with two new railways.

Chavez also has reiterated his willingness to help negotiate the release of hundreds of hostages still being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels.

For both presidents, "the interest right now is to lower the level of confrontation and strengthen relations in common areas, especially the economy," said analyst Sadio Garavini, a former Venezuelan diplomat.

Relations sank to their lowest point in decades in March after Colombia attacked a rebel camp in Ecuador. Chavez responded by briefly dispatching troops to Venezuela's border with Colombia, pulling his ambassador and threatening to cut back trade. He later restored relations, something Ecuador's leftist government hasn't done.

During a feud over Chavez's mediation role with Colombian rebels, the Venezuelan president called Uribe a "pawn of the U.S. empire" and likened him to a mafia boss. "A man like that doesn't deserve to be the president of a country -- coward, liar!" Chavez said.

Colombia, meanwhile, accused Chavez of offering an open-ended loan of at least $250 million to the FARC -- charges bolstered by documents that Uribe's government said were retrieved from a laptop at the bombed guerrilla camp. Bogota officials also said Venezuela has long harbored several rebel leaders.

Chavez denied the accusation, and Colombia's ambassador to Caracas, Fernando Marin, said the laptop documents are not on Friday's agenda.

In Colombia on Friday, the FARC issued a statement condemning what it called the "betrayal" of two guerrillas who had been responsible for the 15 hostages freed by Colombian soldiers in a bold rescue mission this month.

The FARC said it remained open to trading other hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.

Chavez made reconciliation easier for Uribe when he called on the FARC last month to disarm and give up its hostages -- after previously urging world leaders to consider the group a legitimate army of insurgents.

Through Chavez's mediation, the guerrillas freed six hostages earlier this year.

But the FARC said subsequently that it was finished with unilateral releases. Then Colombia's military rescued the 15 rebel-held hostages last week -- reducing Chavez's profile while pushing Uribe's already immense popularity to new highs.

"Uribe is strengthened internationally," while "Chavez has realized he was riding the losing horse" and has expediently adjusted his stance toward Colombia, said Rafael Nieto, a Colombian analyst and former deputy justice minister.

Chavez is looking to shore up his political support ahead of state and local elections in November, and maintaining a conflict with Colombia could be unpopular among Venezuelans.

Uribe has his own political imperative for smoothing over tensions: trade.

For both presidents, "the interest right now is to lower the level of confrontation and strengthen relations in common areas, especially the economy," said analyst Sadio Garavini, a former Venezuelan diplomat.

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