- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Caracas and Bogota ended their short-lived diplomatic crisis Tuesday, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announcing a resumption of diplomatic relations after hours of closed-door talks in the Colombian port town of Santa Marta.

“I came here to turn the page,” Mr. Chavez said to his counterpart during a joint press conference. “And I think that the conversation we had was fraternal.”

Mr. Santos said the two leaders had had “a frank, direct and sincere dialogue,” adding that they have “taken a big step in re-establishing confidence.”

The high-profile summit comes three days after Mr. Santos was sworn in, and nearly three weeks after an accusation by his predecessor — that Venezuela was harboring leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — prompted Mr. Chavez to sever bilateral ties.

The Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS), where Colombia made its July 22 multimedia presentation of evidence of then-President Alvaro Uribe’s allegations, welcomed the rapprochement.

“This is an important time in the Americas,” OAS Assistant Secretary-General Albert Ramdin said Tuesday. “All countries have a responsibility to maintain and foster peace among OAS member states.”

Even before the latest spat, relations between Bogota and Caracas had been icy. In March 2008, Mr. Chavez reacted strongly after Mr. Santos — then serving as Colombia’s defense minister — oversaw airstrikes on a FARC base in Ecuador, a key Venezuelan ally. Relations deteriorated further last year, after news leaked of a military-basing agreement between Bogota and Washington.

But with Mr. Uribe gone after eight years in office, a new beginning appears possible.

“There certainly seems to be a willingness on both sides to try to improve the relationship, and that makes sense because the Colombia-Venezuela relationship has been a mutually beneficial one,” said Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When the economic ties are severed, it hurts both countries in the end.”

Bilateral trade between the neighboring states has plummeted from $7 billion annually at the beginning of 2008 to $2 billion now following successive rounds of trade restrictions imposed by Caracas.

For Mr. Santos, restoring the commercial relationship appears to be a top priority.

Mr. DeShazo, who has served in U.S. diplomatic posts in both countries, said he thinks revitalized economic ties could lead to better cooperation on security at the porous 1,375-mile-long border, which the FARC has exploited.

“I would assume that Santos is going to look with a little more creativity on trying to reach some sort of political agreement with the FARC,” he said. “And if all of a sudden Venezuela has a less benign attitude toward the FARC, it could be helpful in the end. But that´s going to be a difficult task any way you look at it.”

“For Santos, reaching out to Venezuela is a clear win,” said Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America’s Security Policy Program. “If it works, then you’ve got the trade relations back and perhaps you get some cooperation regarding FARC on the border.

“And even if it doesn’t work, and all of the sudden there’s another diplomatic crisis, Santos can adopt a harder line but say, ‘Hey, I gave Chavez an outstretched hand, and it was slapped back.’”

Mr. Isacson said that while he thought Mr. Chavez saw Colombia as a useful distraction ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections, the Venezuelan leader had calculated that “Venezuela’s society and military are not in the mood for war with Colombia.”

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