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    Warring neighbours kiss and make up

    As Ingrid Betancourt gave thanks for her release from captivity at the Catholic shrine of Lourdes on Saturday, the presidents of Venezuela and Colombia were this weekend exploiting the feelgood factor in the region to mend a relationship that had turned dangerously sour.

    Amid handshakes, backslaps and smiles, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez heralded a “new stage” in relations with Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe after their meeting in the Venezuelan town of Punto Fijo. Uribe, for his part, proclaimed the two countries “brothers throughout history, brothers in the future”.

    The meeting took place at the instigation of Chávez, following the successful rescue on July 2 of 15 Farc hostages, including the French-Colombian Betancourt and three American defence contractors.

    Only last autumn, Chávez declared that a reconciliation with Uribe was “impossible” after Uribe had threatened to lay criminal charges against Chávez for “financing genocide”. The jibe was a reference to the Venezuelan government’s suspected support for the Farc insurgents, who kidnapped Betancourt in 2002.

    Chávez, in turn, described Uribe as a “pawn of the American empire” and compared him to a Mafia boss.

    The quarrel began when, after inviting Chávez to try to secure the release of hostages, Uribe then disowned his efforts. Chávez said on Friday that he had been “hurt personally” at the time.

    As relations deteriorated, a cross-border raid by Colombian forces into Ecuador, Venezuela’s left-wing neighbour, prompted Chávez to mobilise troops along the border. The Colombian military claimed to have captured documents revealing that Chávez had tried to finance the rebels.

    Now, after Betancourt’s release, the arguments appear to have been put aside in the interests of trade. Recently, both leaders have toned down the hostile rhetoric and Colombia welcomed a call in June by Chávez for the Farc to bring their long-running insurgency to an end.

    Venezuela and Colombia are each other’s second-largest trade partner with $6-billion in goods traded every year. Venezuela buys food and textiles from its neighbour, while Colombia depends on petrochemicals and vehicles from across the 2 192km border.

    Uribe also said he wanted to mend fences with Ecuador, which cut diplomatic ties with Colombia after the March raid. Chávez said he would convey Uribe’s message to President Rafael Correa.

    “I’m sure President Correa will be ready to ultimately resume direct relations with Colombia,” Chávez said. “As a friend to both, we’re always prepared to help.” —

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