President Chavez, during his weekly television program Aló Presidente, said that he would welcome a face-to-face meeting between himself and President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia to resolve the crisis between the two countries. However, Chavez made it clear that he rejected Uribe’s suggestion of having a formal summit between Latin American presidents to discuss terrorism in general, along with the current crisis.

Official relations between Venezuela and Colombia have been on hold since Venezuelan authorities discovered that Colombia paid a reward or bribe to Venezuelan police and military officials for kidnapping a high-ranking leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of Colombia’s guerilla groups, this past December 13th.

On Friday Chavez had announced that all bilateral relations between the two countries would be suspended until Colombia apologizes for having violated Venezuelan sovereignty. The project this most affects is the planned gas pipeline from Venezuela to Colombia’s Pacific coast. All other cross-border transactions, such as trade and travel, are not affected by the suspension.

“I accept discussing face to face, but this is exclusively a bilateral issue, not the topic of a summit. The central issue... is that a crime has been committed here. Everything else can and should be discussed, but it is secondary. ... The Colombian government cannot aid in the commission of a crime,” said Chavez during his television program.

Chavez added, “In the name of fighting terrorism-let us assume that this was the case-one will violate the sovereignty of neighboring countries, instigating Venezuelan officials to commit crimes and bribing them?” Chavez went on to detail how Venezuelan officials were bribed. “The Venezuelan soldiers who participated in the kidnapping are detained, convicted, and confessed and have given details, President Uribe. You should hear how Colombian officials were for several months bribing and inviting Venezuelan officials to commit this crime.”

Chavez emphasized that if Colombia had formally solicited the extradition of Ricardo Granda, the FARC leader it captured, things would be different. He gave the example of Montesinos and Ballestas, two figures that the governments of Peru and Colombia had sought in earlier occasions and that the Venezuelan government turned over to the respective countries once they were located in Venezuela. Granda, according to Venezuela’s Minister of the Interior, Jesse Chacon, was never sought by Interpol nor had the Venezuelan government received a request from the Colombian government to detain or extradite Granda.

U.S. Government Supports Colombia

Chavez also said that he believes that the crisis between the two countries is being provoked by outside interests and pointed to recent statements the U.S. ambassador to Colombia made, in which he said that the U.S. supports Colombia’s position in the conflict. Ambassador William Wood said on Friday from Bogotá that the U.S. “supports 100% the communiqué of Colombia - a declaration that is moderate, very energetic, and of transcendental importance, not just for Colombia, but for the anti-terrorist struggle in the Andean region.” Also, according to Wood, the Venezuelan government should declare both Colombian guerilla groups, the FARC as well as the ELN as terrorist groups.

The Venezuelan government has repeatedly stated that it would not take position in the Colombian conflict, which it considers to be a civil war. Chavez and his ministers have also said, though, that the Venezuelan government will not tolerate the infiltration of its borders, either by the guerillas, paramilitary forces, or the Colombian military.

Colombia Responds

Wood was referring to a communiqué that the Colombian president’s office released that Friday, in which it outlined in nine points a response to the Venezuelan government’s complaint that Colombia had violated Venezuelan sovereignty.

The Colombian president’s office declared that the Colombian people had a right to “liberate itself from the nightmare of terrorism” and that the issuing of rewards for the capture of terrorists is a legitimate measure for governments to take. The statement also reiterated the Colombian government’s claim that it did not violate Venezuelan sovereignty.

A second communiqué, issued on Sunday, clarified that the Colombian government does not pay bribes, only rewards for the capture of individuals it considers to be terrorists. The statement also says that Colombia is the country whose sovereignty has been violated by the harboring of terrorists in other countries.

Brazilian President Luiz Ignácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, Peruvian Foreign Minister Manuel Rodriguez have both offered to mediate the dispute. However, Chávez has made it clear that he will only meet with his Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe and will no accept the interference of any other country since these affairs are of a strictly bilateral character.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, on the other hand, has scheduled a meeting with Brazilian President Lula for this Wednesday. According to Brazil’s foreign ministry, the agenda will include themes such as bilateral trade, Amazonian security, and regional integration, but will not include the diplomatic crisis between Colombia and Venezuela. Marco Aurelio García, international affairs advisor to President Lula, did not, however, deny the possibility that the crisis between Caracas and Bogotá might be addressed in Wednesday’s meeting.

In a strange coincidence, four Colombian police officers were arrested in the Venezuelan city of Maracay, on December 9th less than a week before Granda’s capture, as suspected spies. The officers were apparently involved in an undercover drug-trafficking investigation in conjunction with Venezuelan military personnel, and were released on December 22nd.

The Colombian embassy said at the time that Venezuelan Defense Minister Gen. Jorge Garcia Carneiro and Colombian Ambassador Enrique Vargas "agreed on the need to strengthen coordination between the authorities of both countries," according to Reuters.

According to Venezuelan officials, the FARC is able to infiltrate the Venezuelan border because Colombia has not stationed an adequate number of soldiers in the frontier region, reported Venezuelan newspaper El Universal. For its part, Venezuela has over 20,000 soldiers stationed on the 1,400 mile-long Venezuelan-Colombian frontier, which is far more than Colombia has stationed there.