Venezuela, Colombia try to mend relations
RACHEL JONESMiami HeraldJuly 11, 2008Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe attempted rapprochement on Friday after months of sniping that threatened billions of dollars in trade and unleashed a diplomatic crisis.Latin America's top U.S. opponent and closest U.S. ally set aside their on-and-off feud for talks because, analysts say, each benefits politically from normalized relations.The countries are key commercial partners, with US$6 billion in trade last year, and Uribe has said he expected to sign accords to link the Andean neighbors with two new railways.Before greeting Uribe with a handshake, Chavez told reporters the talks at the Paraguana oil refining complex on the Caribbean coast were aimed at a "relaunch of cooperation, of peace." It was their first one-on-one meeting since August.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. Chavez 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.Just months ago, Chavez said reconciliation was impossible with Uribe.Colombia, meanwhile, accused Chavez of offering an open-ended loan of at least US$250 million to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC - charges bolstered by documents Uribe's government said were retrieved from a laptop at the bombed guerrilla camp. Bogota officials also say Venezuela has long harbored several rebel leaders.Chavez denies the accusations, and Colombia's ambassador to Caracas, Fernando Marin, said the laptop documents were not on Friday's agenda.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 FARC 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 done with unilateral releases. And then Colombia's military rescued 15 rebel-held hostages last week - 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."Uribe is defending the interests of the Colombian private sector, which has made important investments in Venezuela and which he has to protect," said Adolfo Tayhardat, an analyst and former Venezuelan diplomat.Included on the agenda were energy initiatives, including an offer by Chavez for Colombia to help exploit crude in Venezuela's oil-rich Orinoco "Faja" region, and joint efforts to lessen cross-border smuggling of Venezuela's heavily subsidized gasoline, Marin said.