First move for Colombia's Santos: Reconcile with Venezuela's Chávez

Colombia's new President Juan Manuel Santos is hoping to mend relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez days after outgoing President Álvaro Uribe repeated the charge that Chávez harbors leftist guerrillas.

Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez talk in Santa Marta, Colombia, Friday at the start of their first bilateral encounter since Santos took office last Saturday.

Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez has never shied away from flinging harsh rhetoric at perceived enemies, especially the one next door: staunch US ally Colombia. But outgoing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's recent repetition of the charge that Mr. Chávez harbors leftist Colombian guerrillas sent the fiery populist over the edge.

Chávez said he had no choice but to cut off diplomatic relations and deploy his military to the border. He canceled recent diplomatic trips due to what he claims is a looming invasion from Colombia.

His rhetoric is being seen as an attempt to draw a line in the sand as former Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos takes over from fellow conservative Uribe. But the two countries, which share a 1,375-mile border, have more at stake than mere goodwill. They are economically interdependent.

Mr. Santos response was a reminder of the stakes: He immediately set up today's face-to-face meeting in Colombia in a bid to cool down the tensions and get bilateral ties on more solid footing.

Still, some say Chávez's reaction this time may have actually cost him some ground.

"Chávez played it wrong. Instead of answering the question of whether there are guerrillas [in Venezuela] ... he [accused] Colombia of intervention and broke ties," says Mervin Rodriguez, an international relations professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "Now Chávez is isolated."

Is Chávez supporting the FARC?

Chávez did not instigate the latest political battle between the two countries, which have squabbled ever since Mr. Uribe took office eight years ago.

Last month, Colombia presented evidence – including photographs and maps – to the Organization of American States alleging that at least 1,500 rebels are seeking refuge across the border in Venezuela. Uribe has long accused Venezuela of protecting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which emerged in the 1960s as a Marxist peasant insurgency and which Uribe has taken on as the cornerstone of his presidency.

This is not the first time Chávez has put his country on high alert. In 2008, he mobilized troops after Colombia raided a FARC base in Ecuador. After Colombia unveiled plans last year to grant the United States access to some military bases, Chávez also warned of a strike against his country.

This time, Chávez, who accuses Colombia of conspiring with America, threatened to withhold oil exports to the US, its main customer, should Colombia invade.

Uribe poisoning the well?

On both sides of the border, analysts are questioning the timing of Colombia's charges. In Colombia, some say Uribe was seeking to weaken Chávez as Santos took over, to rally regional support for Colombia's security policy. Others claim a more cynical motive: to dim the prospect of any kind of reconciliation between Chávez and Santos.

"This is pretty much Uribe trying to complicate the future of his successor," says Laura Gil, a columnist in Colombia's capital, Bogotá.

In Venezuela, critics of Chávez say his reaction is a ploy to deflect attention from the charges that he supports the FARC. Chávez, for his part, maintains that he faces a destabilizing force in his backyard.

In either case, the timing gave Chávez the opportunity to send a message to the new Santos administration that he will not tolerate the high-level finger-pointing that was so common under Uribe.

Santos, the pragmatist

He may get his wish with Santos in that respect, but not because of Chávez's reaction, says Ms. Gil. It is because Santos knows the standoff is not benefiting Colombia. "Years of confrontation with Venezuela has brought nothing," Gil says. "Santos is not naive. He was minister of defense during the worst times, but he is very pragmatic."

Regional leaders have not taken sides in this latest flare-up. Instead, they have urged dialogue to defuse tensions. And Uribe in Colombia, which maintains rocky relations with several Venezuela allies in the region who watch its US friendship with raised eyebrows, has faced criticism for stirring the pot.

But leaders are not rushing to defend Chávez from the threats he says he faces from the US and Colombia, either. And Mr. Rodriguez calls this a political loss for Chávez. At the regional Mercosur meeting in Argentina on Aug. 3, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro sought to rally support for the Venezuelan position, but members said it was not the proper venue to resolve the conflict. "Things are not going as Chávez wants," says Rodriguez.

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