Diplomatic Stress Between Colombia and Venezuela Grows

BY Larisa Epatko  July 23, 2010 at 5:05 PM EDT

In the weeks before Colombia gets a new president, tensions between current President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez reached a breaking point this week when Chavez cut diplomatic ties with its neighbor over renewed accusations he is coddling Colombian rebels.

Colombia claims Venezuela is harboring Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, and Uribe made the accusation again at a meeting of the Organization of American States on Thursday, prompting Chavez to say he was cutting all ties with his southern neighbor.

The United Nations has called for restraint and a dialogue between the two countries. The United States has voiced support for its ally Colombia.

Colombians are hoping incoming president Juan Manuel Santos, who is inaugurated Aug. 7, will help smooth things over, said John Otis, GlobalPost’s correspondent in Bogota.

“I think there’s a general hope that once Colombian president-elect Juan Manuel Santos takes office on Aug. 7 that both the Colombian and Venezuelan governments will move to try to tone things down and normalize relations,” he said.

Santos appears more concerned about having good international relations and is more in tune with international opinion of Colombia from studying abroad and from his travels, than outgoing President Uribe, who is “much more of a local guy, much more parochial,” Otis explained.

Santos also has pledged to try to improve relations with Venezuela, and invited Chavez to his inaugural ceremony on Aug. 7, Otis added. Chavez was considering coming, when the accusations of the FARC guerillas being in Venezuela bubbled up, and the diplomatic sands shifted.

The timing of the flap, coming at the end of Uribe’s term, is considered by some as Uribe’s “parting shot” against Chavez and a rebuke of his successor for trying to normalize relations, Otis said.

The countries are trading partners, so any diplomatic troubles they experience translate into economic problems, especially along the border.

“Any time there’s a severance in diplomatic relations or a freezing in commercial relations, which is what’s happened as well, the borders often get closed, tractor trailers line up at the borders trying to bring goods back and forth,” said Otis. Trade between the two countries fell from $7 billion in 2009 to a projected $2 billion this year, he added.

Uribe and Chavez’s relationship started out well, but over the last couple of years grew testy starting with a 2008 Colombian raid into Ecuador to take out a FARC leader. Chavez showed solidarity with fellow left-wing leader in Ecuador, Rafael Correa, by sending Venezuelan troops to the Colombian border, said Otis, and the relationship further deteriorated with the allegations that FARC guerillas were camped in Venezuela.

Both Chavez and Uribe appear to be using the spat for their own purposes. Chavez blames Colombia for problems inside Venezuela and says Colombia with U.S. help will attack Venezuela, said Otis. And every time Uribe complains about Chavez, his approval ratings rise. “It’s good politics for both sides; a lot of that is just playing to the home crowd,” he said.