Distant Neighbors; Hugo Chavez and Alvaro Uribe Are Feuding. but Their Trade Ties Should Hasten a Reconciliation
Byline: Steven Ambrus and Phil Gunson (With Joseph Contreras and Malcolm Beith)
It was not a banner week for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. During her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, U.S. Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice singled out Chavez for criticism over his "close association with Fidel Castro" and the "difficulties" the Venezuelan government was causing for its South American neighbors. One of those neighbors is Colombia, whose president, Alvaro Uribe, has been engaged in a furious diplomatic row with Chavez for the past two weeks. The two South American leaders have been feuding over the apparent kidnapping of Rodrigo Granda--an exiled civilian official of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerrilla movement who'd recently acquired Venezuelan nationality--from the streets of Caracas in December. Chavez, indignant about a violation of his country's sovereignty, called for a freeze on commercial relations with Colombia, and demanded a public apology from Uribe for the abduction. But the Colombian leader has ignored that request, as well as an invitation by Chavez to hold a summit to settle the dispute.
The squabble underscores what an unusual relationship Uribe and Chavez have developed. The stern-faced Uribe is a conservative who came to power on a vow to crush Colombia's Marxist guerrilla forces. He's an ally of U.S. President George W. Bush, and backs Washington's global war on terrorism. Chavez is just the opposite--a flamboyant political leftist who has an adversarial relationship with the Bush administration and, in the past, has turned a blind eye to FARC activity in his country.
For all the sound and fury, however, the imbroglio isn't likely to have a lasting effect on relations between the two countries. The commercial freeze has slowed some cross-border truck traffic but hasn't seriously curtailed business deals. Experts say the long-term economic and strategic interests shared by South America's odd couple will prompt them to seek a face-saving reconciliation. For one thing, outside of their respective commercial ties with the United States, Colombia and Venezuela are each other's biggest trading partner--accounting for $2.5 billion in trade annually. That fact alone almost guarantees "some kind of modus vivendi to defuse the tensions," predicts Larry Birns of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "I doubt this conflict will escalate."
Relations between Uribe and Chavez never promised to be chummy. On the day after he won the 2002 presidential election, Uribe appeared to have Venezuela in mind when he declared his resolve to "prevent brother countries from becoming branches" of Colombia's 40-year-old armed conflict with the left-wing FARC. Tensions heightened last May when Venezuela announced the capture of 88 Colombian nationals who'd supposedly entered its territory as part of a supposed plot to topple Chavez.
The latest rift with Uribe was not one that Chavez sought. When Bogota first announced the Dec. 13 capture of Granda, a FARC official who'd served as a kind of roving ambassador for the guerrilla movement, officials said he had been detained in the Colombian city of Cucuta, near the border with Venezuela. Venezuela's Interior Minister Jesse Chacon initially tried to downplay the incident by claiming there was no record that Granda had ever entered the country legally. …