Venezuela's Chávez softens stance

After a series of setbacks, leftist President Hugo Chávez welcomed his conservative nemesis – Colombia's Álvaro Uribe – to a reconcilatory meeting on Friday.

By , Staff writer

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    Amigos? Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez presented a painting of regional liberation hero Simón Bolívar to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe on Friday.
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For their first face-to-face encounter since a diplomatic crisis erupted in late 2007, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez chose to host Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in this oil refining town in Venezuela, home to the largest refining complex of its kind in the world.

If the setting was intended as a display of power, however, it worked only insofar as oil wealth goes.

Since their relationship deteriorated into insults and accusations – after Mr. Chávez in March sent tanks to the Colombian-Venezuelan border in protest of a Colombian air raid in Ecuador and after Colombia charged Chávez with aiding Colombian leftist rebels – the tides have shifted for these two South American neighbors.

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Both leaders gained Friday by promoting their reconciliation and both were equally ebullient about it. "We're destined to be together," said Chávez, showing off a book on Simon Bolivar, the South American independence leader, which Mr. Uribe had brought him. "We're brothers," added Uribe.

But while Chávez has suffered a series of international and domestic setbacks recently, Uribe's popularity has soared with the stunning rescue of French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other high-profile hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. Many observers say that a power shift is under way, and that Chávez can no longer afford to dismiss the Colombian leader as merely a "pawn" of the United States.

"Uribe has recuperated political space, within and outside of his country, and he is taking advantage of his economic agenda while Chávez is in the weaker position," says Elsa Cardozo, a foreign-policy expert at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "Chávez has suffered some setbacks since last year. He has lost some space. He needs to gain it back, so he is reconsidering his relationships."

The meeting was driven by economics for the partners who traded $6 billion last year. They announced promises to build a new railroad to link the two countries, which share a 1,300-mile border. Despite their ideological differences, an impasse hurts both. "The differences are going to remain," says Laura Gil, an international relations consultant in Bogotá. "But they have to normalize their relationship."

The meeting was the first since Uribe took away Chávez's role in mediating with the FARC. After Colombia launched a raid on Ecuadorean territory in an effort to capture a top FARC commander, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, a Chávez ally, was outraged and has still not mended ties with Colombia. Chávez reacted by sending troops to the border.

Colombia later said that a computer from that raid contained data proving that Chávez has aided the FARC, a claim that he has vehemently denied. An Interpol investigation concluded the computer files were not tampered with.

Throughout the crisis, Chávez's discourse has taken a turn. A few months ago, Chávez said the FARC should be reclassified as a "belligerent" force. Recently he has said they should drop their arms. He has gone from calling Uribe a US "pawn" to a "brother."

The shift seems not to have bothered his supporters. As Chávez and Uribe entered the Paraguana Refining Center in Punto Fijo, state oil workers dressed in red uniforms chanted, "Chávez! Chávez! Chávez!"

But Ricardo Sucre, a political analyst in Caracas, says that Chávez needs to mend ties with Uribe while his ties to the FARC remain a question and as he faces domestic woes at home, including high inflation, crime, and the rejection of various laws he has sought to pass in recent months. "The balance of power is in Uribe's favor," says Mr. Sucre. "Chávez is seeking more breathing space."

Uribe, of course, gained from the meeting too beyond the trade ties and infrastructure that are so important to Colombia. While Chávez has led a movement in South America to form a bloc of like-minded leftist leaders, Uribe has, in some ways, stood alone. Many have criticized Uribe for focusing northward on the US instead of his region.

"They have different projects and ways of doing things," says Sucre. In this moment, he says, Uribe can underscore that Chávez's way is not the only legitimate way to do things in South America.

A better relationship between Chávez and Uribe could help to also end the impasse between Ecuador and Colombia, especially if it plays well among the Ecuadorean public. "It could be a model," says Ms. Cardozo. "Chávez could assume a negotiator role there. He needs it."

When asked whether he would assume a negotiator role with Ecuador, Chávez said: "Sometimes when you step in as a mediator, you die crucified." Both leaders laughed at the reference to their divergence over Chavez's brief role as a hostage mediator between Uribe's government and the FARC.

But few expect Chávez or his allies to serve again as negotiators when it comes to the FARC, even though six hostages were released to him earlier this year. "[Chávez's] words have fluctuated, he says they should be called a belligerent force and then disband fives month later. There is still a lot of suspicion," says Isacson. "The Uribe government is absolutely convinced that they have FARC in a steep decline. … They would not be anxious to see Chávez come back in."

It also remains unclear how deep, and lasting, this reconciliation really is. They joked together, talking about the impersonation that Uribe does of Chávez. But amid shouts by the media to hug for the cameras, the typical ritual in Latin America, the two leaders decided against the embrace.

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