REPORTING FROM BOGOTA AND CARACAS -- It’s an open secret that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, don’t get along. Santos complains that Uribe doesn’t return his calls; Uribe has criticized Santos’ handling of the armed forces and blamed him for an uptick in crime.
But this week the antipathy rose to a new level as Uribe criticized Santos for “sacrificing democratic values” in exchange for improving trade relations with Venezuela. It’s created a sideshow to Santos’ Nov. 28 meeting with President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, the third such meeting since he took office in August 2010 and the first since Chavez fell ill with cancer.
In a gathering in Bogota on Thursday with visiting Venezuelan opposition leaders, including Caracas mayor and presidential candidate Antonio Ledezma, Uribe urged them to rebuke Santos and draw up a “manifesto” that he promised to support publicly. Uribe’s comments were made in a closed-door meeting, but a tape of his remarks was leaked to a local radio station.
Rejection of Uribe’s counsel to the Venezuelans came from unlikely quarters Friday: the Democratic Unity coalition of Venezuelan opposition leaders. In a news release, Executive Secretary Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said his group appreciated Uribe’s “interest in our cause” but that his comments showed an “internal political bias that doesn’t concern us.”
Since taking office, Santos has sought to repair binational relations. After Uribe ordered the March 2008 bombing run that killed FARC leader Raul Reyes in Ecuador, Chavez all but closed his borders to Colombian cattle, rice, manufactured goods and other imports. The restrictions resulted in a $4-billion drop in Colombian exports to Venezuela in 2009.
Santos has struck a friendlier tone and, by some measures, it has worked. Chavez is slowly paying back $780 million owed to Colombian businesses, and cross-border trade is recovering. Chavez has also promised to capture any FARC rebels hiding in his territory if Colombia provides proof and coordinates.
As of Friday afternoon, Chavez had not responded to Uribe's comments, possibly because of a reported promise he made to Santos to never crticize Uribe in public because any such attack would force Santos to come to his defense.
-- Chris Kraul and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez in Bogota and Mery Mogollon in Caracas
Photo: Alvaro Uribe, left, and his wife, Lina Moreno, listen to Juan Manuel Santos at bicentennial celebrations last year. Credit: John Vizcaino / Reuters