July 12, 2008
After months of sniping at each other, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe had a friendly and, they said, productive meeting
CARACAS -- Smiles, handshakes and unusual candor Friday officially ended eight months of tension between Colombia and Venezuela as the countries' leaders held talks at an oil refining complex outside Caracas.
''We come out refreshed, relieved,'' Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said at a news conference after more than two hours of private talks, described by Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe as ``very constructive.''
The tone was in marked contrast to the bitterness exchanged since last November when Uribe put a sudden end to Chávez's role as a mediator with the leftist FARC guerrillas.
During their conversation Friday, Uribe said he acknowledged that he should have phoned Chávez before publicly announcing the decision.
ATTACK IN ECUADOR
Relations reached a fresh low after Colombia bombed a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia camp inside Ecuador on March 1, killing the FARC's second-in-command, Raúl Reyes. Chávez ordered 10 battalions, including tanks, 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.
In response to Uribe's complaints Friday over the insults, Chávez said he had felt ``personally very wounded.''
Uribe had responded by saying 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.''
Friday's meeting, which lasted more than six hours, officially focused on trade, energy and infrastructure. The two leaders signed an agreement to establish a rail link between Colombia and Venezuela and discussed energy integration and agricultural matters.
TRADE DOING WELL
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.
Chávez and Uribe were also expected to discuss the former's alleged support for the FARC, although they did not address the matter at the press conference.
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 moved toward allaying these fears last month when he called publicly for 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 American contractors, on July 2.
However, Uribe will be looking not just for soothing words but for specific commitments from Venezuela to discourage the guerrillas from using its territory as a rear guard.
On Thursday, the Venezuelan ranchers' federation said it had evidence of three FARC camps inside Venezuela in the southwestern border state of Apure.
Other areas in which Uribe sought, and obtained, a commitment from Chávez include counter-narcotics activities and the dispute with Ecuador arising from the cross-border raid.
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. Chávez is to visit Ecuador on Tuesday.
In response to questions about a future role for Chávez in mediation with the FARC, Uribe said the Colombian government would seek direct contact with the guerrillas. Chávez said he was always willing to help, but that this was an ``internal Colombian problem.''