Chávez puts Colombia relations in ‘freezer’

By Benedict Mander and Richard Lapper in Caracas

Relations between Venezuela and Colombia have sunk to their lowest point for more than two years after President Hugo Chávez branded his Colombian counterpart Álvaro Uribe a “liar and a cynic”.

“I declare before the world that I’m putting relations with Colombia in the freezer. I’ve completely lost confidence with everyone in the Colombian government,” Mr Chávez said at the weekend, adding that the affair would damage economic relations between the two countries.

The move followed Mr Uribe’s cancellation of Mr Chávez’s mediation in a hostage crisis in Colombia, which Mr Chávez described as a “brutal spitting in the face”. “I think Colombia deserves another president. It deserves a better president,” he said.

Mr Chávez is in the final stage of political campaigning ahead of a referendum on Sunday to approve controversial changes to the country’s constitution, which would allow his indefinite re-election and weaken private property rights.

Mr Uribe called off efforts by Mr Chávez to broker the release of 45 high-profile hostages held by leftwing guerillas group Farc, after he made direct contact with Colombian military leaders, something Mr Uribe had asked him not to do this month.

On Monday he accused Mr Chávez of legitimising Farc. “Your words, your attitudes, give the impression that you aren’t interested in peace in Colombia but rather that Colombia be a victim of a terrorist Farc government,” said Mr Uribe. “The truth is, President Chávez, we need a mediation with terrorists, not people who legitimise terrorism.”

Relations between the pro-US Mr Uribe and the radical nationalist government of Mr Chávez have been rocky – the two countries came to the brink of a break-off in diplomatic relations in early 2005, but they have recently improved.

Bilateral trade between Venezuela and Colombia was $4.1bn (€2.8bn, £2bn) last year. The two countries are also working on joint plans to develop a gas pipeline.

Opinion polls show Mr Chávez is likely to win Sunday’s referendum, but he has suffered some loss of support. Opposition leaders suggest the aggressive stance towards Colombia is part of efforts to recover ground.

“Chávez’s reaction is an irresponsible provocation. It is aimed at winning electoral support at home,” says Teodoro Petkoff, editor of Venezuelan newspaper Tal Cual.

Mr Chávez has also fallen out with Spain after a diplomatic spat. King Juan Carlos told Mr Chávez to “shut up” this month after he called former Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar a “fascist”. On Sunday Mr Chávez said he was freezing relations with Spain until he received an apology.

“It’s going to be a difficult patch, particularly since Chávez is up to his old vice of having multiple enemies,” said Larry Birns, an analyst at the Council of Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, referring to Mr Chávez’s recent fallout with Spain.