Chávez and Santos summit could reset Venezuelan-Colombian ties

Hugo Chávez will meet new Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos tomorrow to take first step towards restoring relations

Hugo Chávez and his new counterpart in Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, are to meet tomorrow to defuse a diplomatic crisis over allegations that Venezuela is harbouring Colombian guerrillas.

The two leaders agreed to talks to try to end a festering dispute which has poisoned relations between their countries and rattled the rest of South America.

The rapprochement followed Santos's inauguration on Saturday and raised hopes that diplomatic ties and cross-border trade would be revived even if the main issue – whether Caracas has been aiding Colombia's rebels – remained unresolved.

The apparent breakthrough was overshadowed today by the new Colombian vice-president's heart attack just two days into the job. Doctors said Angelino Garzón, 64, was conscious and stable and awaiting emergency surgery.

Venezuela's foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, and his opposite number in Colombia, María Angela Holguín, brokered the presidential meeting on the sidelines of the inauguration in Bogotá.

Santos, a former defence minister who won in a landslide election, said he hoped the meeting would normalise relations. Chávez said he was "happy" at that prospect: "We are going to start a new relationship for the good of both countries."

The decision to send Maduro to Bogotá was a surprise given weeks of insults between Chávez and Colombia's outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe. The conservative hardliner, who over the years often clashed with Venezuela's socialist leader, triggered the latest row last month by accusing his neighbour of cosseting terrorists.

At a special session of the Organisation of American States, Colombia presented videos, photos and maps purportedly proving that 1,500 fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and a smaller leftist group, the ELN, had camps just inside Venezuela.

Chávez denied the allegations and severed diplomatic ties with Bogotá. There is no doubt armed Colombian groups operate in Venezuela: ranchers, clerics, mayors and army officers, among others, testify to kidnappings and extortion by guerrillas, militias and criminal gangs in the border states of Apure, Tachira and Zulia. The question is how many, and whether elements of Venezuela's government support some of them.

Chávez, a self-styled socialist revolutionary, has in the past professed admiration for Farc and called it a legitimate army. The US and EU calls the group drug-trafficking terrorists.

Yesterday, however, Chávez repeated calls for the rebels to release hostages and to negotiate an end to their decades-long insurgency. "Just as one proposes that Colombia's government seek the path to peace, the guerrillas also must do it ... They have no future by staying armed."

Uribe was unimpressed by the olive branch and said he was willing to testify against Chávez in a case to be brought before the international criminal court by Colombian victims of guerrilla violence. A spokesman said the former president would testify in a private capacity but draw on privileged information from his eight years in office.

But his successor was clearly keen to end a row which has hit cross-border trade, slowed Colombia's economic recovery and fuelled Venezuela's galloping inflation.

"For Santos (this is) a huge break with Uribe," said Adam Isacon, a Colombia specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America thinktank. The new president had several reasons, he said. "If diplomacy works better than threats to convince Chávez to break with the Farc and deny them safe havens, it's absolutely worth a try."

If diplomacy failed Santos could tell the international community he offered a hand of friendship and it was slapped away. In addition, calming tensions would deprive Chavez of a useful political distraction in the run-up to legislative elections set to be dominated by Venezuela's economic travails.

Turbulent past

Venezuela and Colombia share a 1,375-mile border and volatile history. Both were part of a short-lived nation known as Gran Colombia that included Ecuador and Panama after Simón Bolívar expelled Spanish rule in the 19th century. The dream of continental unity died amid squabbling by the victorious generals.

Colombia's four-decade guerrilla conflict has for years spilled into Venezuela in the form of kidnappings, smuggling and drug trafficking.

Hugo Chávez, a self-described Marxist, has at times lauded the Marxist guerrillas but denies providing arms or logistical support. Toxic personal chemistry with Colombia's former president, Álvaro Uribe, further strained ties. Chávez has frequently recalled Venezuela's ambassador from Bogotá and accused Colombian hitmen of plotting his assassination.

Chávez ordered 10 tank battalions to the border in 2008 after Colombia bombed a rebel camp in Ecuador, but few took the threat of war seriously. The row ended in hugs days later.

• This article was amended on 10 August 2010. The opening paragraph originally referred to Columbia. This has been corrected.

Associated Press in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Chávez freezes ties with Colombia

Venezuela recalls ambassador and freezes relations in protest at claims it supplied arms to Farc rebels

Rory Carroll in Caracas

29, Jul, 2009 @6:45 AM

Article image
Hugo Chávez breaks diplomatic ties between Venezuela and Colombia

President acts in response to Colombian claims that Venezuela is sheltering Farc and ELN rebels

Rory Carroll in Caracas

23, Jul, 2010 @12:30 AM

Article image
Ally of Hugo Chávez jailed for links to Colombian drugs cartels
Top judge’s sentence for extortion charges associated with illicit drugs trade taints late Venezuelan president and party

Richard Luscombe in Miami

06, Nov, 2014 @8:51 PM

Article image
Colombian president Álvaro Uribe has swine flu
Diagnosis prompts fears for health of Latin American leaders who met Uribe at regional summit last week

Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent

31, Aug, 2009 @8:55 AM

Venezuelan energy crisis threatens the Chávez revolution
President's popularity plunges ahead of elections as drought leads to blackouts and electricity rationing

Rory Carroll in Caracas

11, Mar, 2010 @5:18 PM

Article image
Chávez and Uribe 'almost came to blows' at summit, says WikiLeaks
Latin American unity summit in Mexico dissolved into 'banana republic' shoving match with Raúl Castro as the referee

Rory Carroll

02, Dec, 2010 @9:30 PM

Article image
Chavez sends 10 battalions to Colombian border after killing of Farc commander

Venezuelan reaction to incursion into Ecuador plunges region into crisis

Rory Carroll in Caracas and Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

03, Mar, 2008 @3:07 PM

Article image
Chávez wins freedom for Colombian hostages
· Rebels release pair in deal with Venezuelan president
· Mother will meet son born in jungle captivity

Rory Carroll in Caracas and Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

11, Jan, 2008 @2:59 AM

Article image
Venezuelan president pounces on listeners with 'Suddenly Chávez'

Hugo Chávez's new radio show aims to reverse shrinking audience by stealth

Rory Carroll in Caracas

09, Feb, 2010 @5:54 PM

Article image
Venezuelan leaders gather at bedside of Hugo Chávez
Recently re-elected president has undergone his fourth cancer-related surgery and his health is said to be 'delicate'

Virginia Lopez in Caracas

03, Jan, 2013 @6:37 PM