Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

First Move for Colombia's Santos: Reconcile with Venezuela's Chavez

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

First Move for Colombia's Santos: Reconcile with Venezuela's Chavez

Article excerpt

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

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

Chavez 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 Chavez's reaction this time may have actually cost him some ground.

"Chavez 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 Chavez is isolated."

Is Chavez supporting the FARC?

Chavez 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 Chavez has put his country on high alert. In 2008, he mobilized troops after Colombia raided a FARC base in Ecuador. …

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