Chavez’ latest foe: Colombia

Dispute between neighbors speaks to political realities

By Oscar Avila | Tribune foreign correspondent
November 27, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela – Another day, another spat for Hugo Chavez.

On the heels of a dust-up with Spain’s King Juan Carlos involving the monarch telling him to “shut up,” the Venezuelan president found himself in yet another diplomatic divide Monday, this time with neighboring Colombia.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had enlisted Chavez to help negotiate the release of hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a leftist guerrilla movement known by its Spanish initials FARC. But Chavez violated Uribe’s conditions by talking directly to Colombia’s army chief.

That led Uribe to call the whole thing off, which launched back-and-forth insults over the weekend, with Chavez accusing Uribe of “lying in a style that is shameless, ugly and horrible” and Uribe accusing Chavez of the “old trick of promoting hatred” to win votes. Afterward, Chavez told a national television audience he would put relations between the two countries in the “freezer.”

Chavez has taken on many of the continent’s leaders, and analysts say the squabbles often produce a short-term benefit for both the Venezuelan leader and his adversary du jour. The current flap, while apparently personal, might be related to broader political realities, analysts said.

Chavez is facing strong opposition in a Sunday referendum to overhaul the constitution by expanding presidential powers and centralizing government functions. Some independent polls even show his initiative going down to defeat.

Teodoro Petkoff, a liberal Chavez critic who once briefly ran for president, said Chavez’s angry remarks against Colombia and Spain are likely a ploy to stir up nationalism before the election.

“Beyond the brutality and the rudeness of the language, which we are used to, he is trying to motivate his partisans again by creating the idea that we are threatened” by Spain’s king and by Colombia, Petkoff said. “I hope that Colombia and Spain respond without falling into Chavez’s trap.”

Little risk in assailing Chavez

The conservative Uribe also could benefit from the exchange, analysts say. Chavez had the second-lowest approval rating throughout the Americas among 12 key leaders in the region, according to a survey by Latinobarometro released this month, so there is little political risk in attacking him.

“From Uribe’s point of view, there is political gain there,” said Cynthia McClintock, an expert on Andean politics at George Washington University. “When major plays are made that emphasize one’s nationalist mantel, that tends to play well in Latin America, especially because of the sense that another country is intervening is anathema.”

McClintock said the dispute is somewhat surprising, given that the neighbors had worked well together despite their ideological differences, generating at least $4 billion in annual trade. Chavez proclaims a socialist revolution and Uribe is a pro-U.S. ally who welcomes American cooperation in anti-drug operations and free trade.

In an analysis published Monday, the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs theorized that Uribe might have responded so aggressively to curry favor in the U.S., where a proposed free-trade agreement faces an uphill climb in Congress.

Chavez, addressing a rally Sunday, said Uribe invented details about the hostage negotiations and declared that his stance toward Venezuela was “spit in our faces.”

“President Uribe is lying, and he is lying in a style that is shameless, ugly and horrible,” Chavez said. “I think Colombia deserves another president, a better president, one who is dignified.”

The normally mild-mannered Uribe fired back, accusing Chavez of promoting terrorism in Colombia with his tacit support of the FARC. Invoking Chavez’s hero, Uribe said Chavez’s tactics run counter to the values of liberator Simon Bolivar.

“The truth, President Chavez, is that you are using the old trick of promoting hatred against the Colombian people to promote your own electoral ends,” Uribe said. “We don’t accept that Colombia would be incorporated into an expansionist plan that, little by little, starts denying the liberties that our continent has achieved.”

Former Colombian President Ernesto Samper told a Colombian satellite network: “Our relationship has never deteriorated as much as it has after this confrontation. We need to hope that spirits are calmed, that heads are cooled.”

Colombian officials said Monday that they were waiting clarification from Chavez about the state of their relationship.

Illiterate, fascist, scoundrel

Uribe is only the latest official to get hit with rhetorical buckshot from Chavez.

Chavez called former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a “fascist,” drawing the “Why don’t you shut up?” remark from the Spanish king. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a “true illiterate,” Peruvian President Alan Garcia is a “cheat and scoundrel” and former Mexican President Vicente Fox is a “puppy of the [U.S.] empire,” in the Venezuelan president’s lexicon.

“Chavez has not been able to control his language in international settings,” McClintock said. “This isn’t the first time we’re discussing an insult or lack of diplomacy on his part and it probably won’t be the last.”