- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2008

PARAGUANA, Venezuela | Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe took a stab at normalizing relations Friday after months of sniping that threatened billions of dollars in trade and created a diplomatic crisis between Latin America’s top U.S. opponent and closest U.S. ally.

Mr. Chavez, who just months ago called reconciliation impossible, said the talks were aimed at a “relaunch of cooperation, peace and integration of Latin America.”

“We have a need to take up the path again and reactivate relations. Now that depends on many things,” Mr. Chavez said, welcoming Mr. Uribe warmly before they began closed-door talks at the Paraguana oil refining complex on the Caribbean coast. It was their first one-on-one meeting since August.

Analysts say the two are setting aside their on-and-off feud because each benefits politically from normalized relations. The countries are key commercial partners, with $6 billion in trade last year, and the leaders were expected to sign accords to link the Andean neighbors with two new railways.

Mr. Chavez also has reiterated his willingness to help negotiate the release of hundreds of hostages still being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels.

Relations sank to their lowest point in decades in March after Colombia attacked a rebel camp in Ecuador. Mr. Chavez responded by briefly dispatching troops to Venezuela’s border with Colombia, pulling his ambassador and threatening to cut trade. Mr. Chavez later restored relations, something Ecuador’s leftist government hasn’t done.

During a feud over Mr. Chavez’s mediation role with Colombian rebels earlier this year, the Venezuelan president called Mr. Uribe a “pawn of the U.S. empire” and likened him to a mafia boss.

Colombia, meanwhile, accused Mr. Chavez of offering an open-ended loan of at least $250 million to FARC - charges bolstered by documents Mr. Uribe’s government said were retrieved from a laptop at the bombed guerrilla camp. Bogota officials also say Venezuela has long harbored several rebel leaders.

Mr. Chavez denies the accusations. Colombia’s ambassador to Caracas, Fernando Marin, said the laptop documents were not on Friday’s agenda.

In Colombia on Friday, FARC issued a statement condemning what it called the “betrayal” of two guerrillas who had been responsible for the 15 hostages freed by Colombian soldiers in a bold rescue mission earlier this month.

FARC said it remained open to trading other hostages for imprisoned guerrillas.

Mr. Chavez made reconciliation easier for Mr. Uribe when he called on FARC last month to disarm and give up its hostages - after previously urging world leaders to consider FARC a legitimate army of insurgents.

Through Mr. Chavez’s mediation, the guerrillas freed six hostages earlier this year.

But FARC said subsequently that it was finished with unilateral releases. Then Colombia’s military rescued 15 rebel-held hostages last week - reducing Mr. Chavez’s profile while pushing Mr. Uribe’s already immense popularity to new highs.

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