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Venezuela Congratulates Colombian President-Elect but Remains Cautious

Fri 25th Jun 2010

The Venezuelan Foreign Relations Ministry congratulated Colombian President-Elect Juan Manuel Santos for his victory in Sunday’s elections, but said Venezuela will remain alert to both the words and actions of the Colombian government to see if bilateral relations of “honesty and respect” may be restored.

“The Bolivarian Government extends its congratulations for the victory of President-Elect Juan Manuel Santos, and wishes him success in the exercise of his new responsibility,” said an official ministry statement on Monday.

The ministry also said it “congratulates the fraternal Colombian people, who expressed their will in the electoral process held on Sunday.”

However, the ministry expressed caution about Santos, who served as defense minister for outgoing President Alvaro Uribe and pledged to carry on Uribe’s rejection of dialogue with the government’s four decade-old guerrilla foe, the FARC.

“The Revolutionary Government of Venezuela will be paying attention not only to the statements of the spokespeople of the new government, but to the facts that will shape the kind of relations that may be possible to have with honesty and respect with the elected government,” said the Ministry.

The statement concluded with a pledge to promote “internal peace in Colombia as a key factor to finding peace and integration in the region,” and to promote unity among the two countries.

In response, Santos expressed optimism that bilateral relations may be restored. “Venezuela released a statement that I appreciate and value greatly, a very kind statement, and I think it is a very positive first gesture toward another objective that we should all have, which is re-establishing relations for the good of our peoples,” he said.

“In conflictive relationships there are always two alternatives: Look with bitterness to the past or open paths of cooperation for the future,” Santos said.

Venezuela severed diplomatic relations with Colombia last year after Colombia signed a military deal to allow the United States, its top ally, to expand its espionage and military operations across the continent from seven Colombian bases.

Colombia also announced in December 2009 that it would build a new military base along the northern border with Venezuela and activate six new air force battalions.

Chavez accused Colombia of conspiring with the United States to plan a military intervention with the aim of toppling his socialist government. Colombia said its only intention was to combat the guerrilla rebels in its territory, and accused Venezuela of financing the FARC, citing evidence that INTERPOL could not verify after an independent investigation.

During Colombia’s presidential campaign in recent months, Chavez said the election of Santos would be a “military threat to the region,” and could worsen economic relations between Colombia and its second largest trading partner, Venezuela. Venezuela also vowed to replace its Colombian imports with imports from other Latin American nations.

The diplomatic conflict caused bilateral trade to drop by 70% in the first quarter of 2010, according to Daniel Montealegre, the president of the Chamber of Venezuela-Colombian Integration (CAVECOL).

Montealegre said on Tuesday that despite the impasse, CAVECOL is optimistic that relations can be restored. “We view the announcement that President Chavez made by way of the Foreign Relations Ministry to congratulate President Santos with a lot of optimism. This is a very good signal in the sense that in the very short term relations between Venezuela and Colombia could be re-established,” he said.

Bilateral relations were already tense before last year’s Colombia-US military deal. In late 2007, Colombia nixed Chavez’s role as mediator of FARC hostage releases. In March 2008, the Colombian military bombed a FARC encampment inside Ecuadoran territory. This resulted in a regional political crisis and the severance of relations between Colombia and Ecuador, who have not fully re-established relations to this day.

Following Sunday’s presidential election, Correa called Santos on the telephone to congratulate him for his victory. Both presidents later told reporters they had agreed to continue working to re-establish bilateral relations.

Correa also commented on a provincial Ecuadoran court that brought charges against Santos last year for his role in the 2008 attack, when he was Colombian defense minister. Correa called the case “a problem” for the process of improving relations, but said he cannot do anything to impede an independent action of the judicial branch.

Meanwhile, in a radio interview, Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño expressed caution about the next steps in its relations with Colombia. “We do not look with bitterness to the past, but we are concerned about what could happen. We have to view things with caution, and not be innocent and naive with relation to what happened [in March 2008],” said the minister.
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