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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.

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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.

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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.