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Venezuela, Colombia set aside differences

Sat., July 12, 2008

PARAGUANA, Venezuela – Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe mended relations Friday after months of sniping that threatened trade and unleashed a diplomatic crisis between Latin America’s top U.S. opponent and closest U.S. ally.

Chavez, who just months ago called reconciliation impossible, said the talks allowed the two to “completely turn the page after the storm that passed.”

“From today on begins a new era,” Chavez said after the closed-door talks. “We’re destined to be together.”

Despite their deep differences, Uribe said “we’re brothers” and gave Chavez a book about South American independence hero Simon Bolivar during their 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 pledged to link the Andean neighbors with a new railway.

Relations sank to their lowest point in decades in March after Colombia attacked a rebel camp in Ecuador. Chavez responded by briefly dispatching troops to Venezuela’s border with Colombia and temporarily pulling out his ambassador.

Chavez reiterated his willingness to help mediate in Colombia’s four-decade conflict with lefists rebels, but only if invited.

“We’ve tried to help in (Colombia’s) internal matters only when it’s been asked of us,” Chavez said.

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

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

Chavez has denied the accusations, and Uribe did not publicly bring them up.


 

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