July 11, 2008
PARAGUANA, Venezuela -- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe mended relations Friday after months of sniping that threatened 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 allowed the two to "completely turn the page after the storm that passed."
"From today on begins a new era," Chavez said after the talks. "We're destined to be together."
The two have repeatedly clashed over their stances toward Colombia's leftist rebels, but Uribe said "we're brothers" and gave Chavez a book about South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
It was their first one-on-one meeting since August.
Analysts say the two are setting aside their on-and-off feud because each benefits politically from normalized relations. The countries share some $6 billion in annual trade, and the leaders pledged to link the Andean neighbors with a new railway.
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 the border and temporarily pulling out his ambassador.
Uribe said he hopes relations can be similarly restored with Ecuador's leftist government, and Chavez said he believes it's possible.
"I'm sure President (Rafael) Correa would also be willing _ I think so _ to re-establish direct relations with Colombia as we have," said Chavez, who will visit Ecuador next week.
Chavez reiterated his willingness to help mediate in Colombia's four-decade conflict, but only if invited. "We've tried to help in (Colombia's) internal matters only when it's been asked of us," he said.
During a spat over Chavez's mediation role with rebels earlier this year, the Venezuelan president lashed out at Uribe a "pawn of the U.S. empire" and likened him to a mafia boss.
Colombia, meanwhile, accused Chavez of offering an open-ended loan of at least $250 million to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC _ charges bolstered by documents Colombia said were retrieved from a laptop at the bombed guerrilla camp. Colombian officials also have said Venezuela has long harbored several rebel leaders.
Chavez denies the accusations, and Uribe did not publicly bring them up.
"We came out refreshed and relieved," Chavez said after some four hours of talks at the Paraguana oil refining complex.
He pledged cooperation with Colombia in counter-drug efforts.
Chavez made reconciliation easier for Uribe last month when he called on the FARC to disarm _ after previously urging world leaders to consider the FARC a legitimate army of insurgents rather than a terrorist group.
At a news conference Friday, Uribe blamed the rebels for flouting past peace initiatives.
"On many occasions in Colombia, all the conditions for definitive peace have been created (but) the terrorists haven't wanted to," Uribe said. "Many citizens of the world have tried to mediate. ... The answer was more violence."
Uribe said Venezuela and Cuba have helped in talks with rebels of the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, but said those rebels responded "without advances toward peace."
Through Chavez's mediation, the FARC freed six hostages earlier this year. The FARC said subsequently that it was finished with unilateral releases, and Colombia's military rescued 15 rebel-held hostages last week in a bold operation that pushed Uribe's popularity to new highs.
"Uribe is strengthened internationally," while "Chavez has realized he was riding the losing horse" and expediently adjusted his stance, said Rafael Nieto, a Colombian analyst and former deputy justice minister.
Adolfo Tayhardat, a Venezuelan analyst, said Uribe is looking to defend Colombian trade while Chavez is aiming to ease conflict and shore up support ahead of state and local elections in November.
The FARC issued a statement Friday condemning what it called the "betrayal" of two guerrillas responsible for holding the 15 hostages freed by Colombian troops, and said it remains open to trading other hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.
Neither leader referred to that statement, and Uribe did not publicly mention any invitation for Chavez to participate in new negotiations.
"What we want now is to be able to have the rest of the 27 hostages who the FARC call 'exchangeables' freed quickly," Uribe said.