BOGOTA – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has asked that a one-time Colombian foreign minister play a role in alleviating tensions between the two neighbors over Caracas’ alleged support for rebels and Bogota’s growing military ties with Washington, former Colombian leader Ernesto Samper said on Friday.
In comments to Efe, Samper noted that Chavez did not make a “formal request for mediation” during their Thursday meeting in Caracas.
Chavez, instead, asked him if Maria Emma Mejia could travel to Venezuela to “continue helping” to resolve the problems with Colombia, according to Samper, who said he had not yet spoken with the woman who served as foreign minister in his 1994-1998 administration.
Samper said Mejia is perfectly suited to such a role and all possible steps must be taken to resolve “the crisis of confidence” that currently exists between the two governments.
In that sense, Samper proposed that journalists and business leaders be sent to Caracas to express Colombia’s points of view and, above all, avoid “statements in the media and insults that could lead to real war.”
In other statements published Friday by Colombian daily El Tiempo, Samper conveyed Chavez’s thoughts about Bogota’s plans to allow U.S. troops to use its military bases and complaints that rocket launchers acquired by Venezuela ended up in the hands of Colombian guerrillas.
The ex-president said Chavez felt “unfairly treated because he was never told about the matter of the bases and because the issue of the weapons was totally unfair.”
Samper emphasized that he did not request a meeting with Chavez, but simply accepted an invitation relayed through the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry.
He said Colombia’s current president, Alvaro Uribe, had been aware of the invitation from the outset.
In comments after Thursday’s talks in Caracas, Samper said that his visit was intended to “open a door” in bilateral relations, especially for the benefit of border communities.
Samper said inhabitants on both sides of the border are the people most affected by the “freeze” in bilateral ties, which Chavez announced after Colombia’s vice president insinuated that Venezuela was arming leftist guerrillas.
Uribe’s conservative administration claims that several anti-tank rocket launchers produced in Sweden and sold to Venezuela in the 1980s were found last year at a camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla group.
The Venezuelan leader has denied providing the weapons to the guerrilla army – labeled a terror group by Bogota, Washington and the European Union – and says the Colombians are unfairly singling out his country, noting that videos have clearly shown that FARC soldiers carry U.S.-, Russian- and Israeli-made weapons.
The neighboring countries also have been at loggerheads over the Colombian government’s decision to allow the U.S. military long-term access to several of its military bases.
Chavez says the base deal represents a threat to Venezuela, although Colombia maintains the agreement will bolster the fight against drug trafficking and terrorist activity and is necessary after Ecuador ended a lease allowing U.S. access to a base in that country.
Chavez, whose oil-rich nation is a key supplier of crude to the United States, accuses Washington of complicity with an abortive 2002 coup and views the millions of dollars Venezuelan opposition groups receive from U.S. public entities as interference.
The United States in recent years has accused Chavez of threatening to undermine “stability” in Latin America but has denied having any role in the 2002 putsch.
In addition to threats to cut off trade with Colombia, Chavez warned last week that Colombian companies operating in Venezuela could be expropriated.
Trade between Venezuela and Colombia exceeded $7 billion in 2008, with the trade balance heavily tilted in Colombia’s favor, according to private and official figures from both countries.