By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – President Hugo Chávez said Venezuela and Colombia had “relaunched relations” and that “nothing was going to disturb them again.” The two countries had reset their relationship in all spheres, he added.
Chávez’ remarks came during a meeting Tuesday at the president palace, Miraflores, with his Colombian counterpart, Álvaro Uribe. The two leaders have been at loggerheads in the past, but it appeared that Chávez was out to consign all that to history.
Time was when the populist Chávez made no secret of his dislike of Uribe, a conservative in both economics and politics.
In Chávez’ view, Uribe was far too committed to the free market economics of the “neoliberalism” the Venezuelan leader claims to despise. As such Uribe, the United States’ strongest ally in the region, was also depicted as a stooge of Washington, and a willing one at that.
For his part, Uribe was aware of Colombian suspicions that guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were taking refuge on Venezuelan territory. Chávez even voiced support for the FARC at one stage.
Things came to a head when Uribe launched a military strike at a FARC camp on Ecuadorian territory last year. Quito broke diplomatic relations, and has yet to restore them.
While he protested loudly, Chavez didn’t go further than recalling Venezuela’s ambassador. And he changed his tone, calling on the FARC to lay down its weapons, after Franco-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betáncourt and several others were rescued in an operation involving the Colombian military.
Given these past differences, Tuesday’s talks were said to have focused on economic rather than political issues. One problem is a big imbalance in trade between the two countries. Of total bilateral trade of $7.2 billion in 2008, no less than $6 billion consisted of Colombian exports to Venezuela.
Among those shipments are autos, eggs and chicken – all items in which Chávez would like to see Venezuela self-sufficient. Colombia even exports some natural gas to Venezuela, of all things. The reason for this is lack of gas delivery infrastructure in parts of western Venezuela. While Colombia doesn't need Venezuela's oil or gas, or at least not yet, Colombia meets many of Venezuela's needs, and is the second largest trading partner after the United States.
Uribe said that he and Chávez had discussed plans to set up a Venezuela “strategic fund,” the purpose of which he didn’t make clear. He called for “social responsibility and transparency” in investments made between the two countries.
“We two governments are going to work together so that there aren’t any attempts at corruption, and everything we do will be to guarantee that transparency generates confidence,” the Colombian president said.
This might have been a bit near the bone for Chávez. While Colombia in relative terms gets quite good marks on the anti-corruption scale, Venezuela is well towards the opposite end.
But Uribe didn’t seem to be out to score points. It’s likely that what he had to say
next was rather more welcome to Chávez’ ears. Capital, he said, had to be “a factor of social wealth” and not a matter of “speculation and corruption.”
With respect to this, he continued, Chávez and his government had expressed a concern that the government of Colombia shared. Uribe conceded that within the bilateral trade flow there had been cases of over-billing for exports.
Spokesmen said the two presidents signed several agreements, among them some on oil and gas, but didn’t go into detail. Chávez and Uribe had also reviewed progress made under existing accords.
This was the second time the two leaders had met this year. Uribe wasn’t met by Chávez on his arrival at the airport, but by Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro.
The reason for this apparent bending of protocol wasn’t immediately clear, although it was pointed out that Uribe was on a working trip rather than a state visit.