Colombia, Venezuela Tensions High

Meetings last week with Colombian President Juan Santos and Venezuela’s socialist leader Hugo Chavez were intended to restart and redefine the relationship between the two South American countries. Myles Frechette, former U.S. Ambassador to Columbia, discusses the outcome of the gathering.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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But first, we want to talk about two South American countries where relations have been on a roller coaster ride over the past couple of weeks. We're talking about Colombia and Venezuela. Just to recap a little bit of recent history, Venezuela has imposed restrictions on Colombia's imports. And in recent weeks, there were accusations that Venezuela has been helping to fund and even provide safe haven for a rebel group operating in Colombia known as the FARC, a group that's been responsible for thousands of kidnappings in Colombia in recent years.

The inauguration of a new president in Colombia in June was not expected to help matters since Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos and Venezuela Hugo Chavez are ideological opposites who had been trading personal insults in recent months. But last week, the two sides met for the first time. Hugo Chavez even brought flowers. So, what happened? And what does it mean to those countries and to the U.S.?

We wanted some answers so we called a United States ambassador to Colombia during the Clinton administration, Myles Frechette. He is currently a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's here with me in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome, Mr. Ambassador. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. MYLES FRECHETTE (Former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia; Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Good to be here.

MARTIN: So, I understand this is a complicated story, but what's the chicken and egg with the poor relations between Colombia and Venezuela? What's the origin of it?

Mr. FRECHETTE: You know, border problems. In Latin America in general, South America, particularly, it's always border problems. You know, Colombia-Venezuela were both liberated from Spain by Simon Bolivar. And he was even the dictator of both of those countries after a while in independence.

But, you know, they are so different. You know, Venezuela is stratified, but it's much more egalitarian. You can use the personal even to address the president you can call him tul(ph) instead of senior. But in Colombia, watch out. And Colombia is extremely stratified. And if you're born poor in Colombia, you're likely to die poor.

MARTIN: So, and you've lived in both countries.

Mr. FRECHETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: You said so. What how credible is this allegation that Venezuela is providing a safe haven for FARC rebels?

Mr. FRECHETTE: Oh, I think it's extremely credible. But, you know, the Colombians have proof, a lot of proof. And they're just going to keep raising it and I think that's one of the reasons that made Chavez rethink the whole thing, you know, because he can go on denying it and not letting people come in and inspect his country. But, you know, after a while, even adults says, you know, hey, I know what he's up to.

MARTIN: So, what was behind the meeting last week? Because we mentioned earlier they were calling each other Chavez once called Santos a wolf in sheep's clothing and accused Santos of engaging in a plot to assassinate him and then Santos once compared Chavez's election to that of other demagogues like Mussolini and Hitler. So no love lost between these two individuals. So what was behind the meeting last week?

Mr. FRECHETTE: I think the answer is very simple. If Juan Manuel Santos does a halfway good job, he will be reelected to the presidency in 2014 and serve till 2018. And Chavez is up for reelection in 2012, and he'll be elected for another six years. So that's eight years those two guys who live right across the border from each other have got to get along. And there are some advantages in getting along. They're complimentary economies. They can trade more. It was Chavez who cutoff the trade. The Colombians would like to recover that.

And not only that, you know, I think basically some of the countries in South America are tiring of all this. So, and let me say one last thing, Chavez is an extremely good politician. He knows the Venezuelan people. And a recent poll in Venezuela said that 80 percent of the people don't like confrontation. And, you know, in September, late September, there's going to be legislative elections in Venezuela.

And Chavez doesn't want to lose seats in the national assembly. So this makes sense for everyone. Now, will it work? I don't know. I can tell you that in Colombia the newspapers are boiling with commentary that Chavez is not to be believed and but there are some reasons that you can believe that they have some good reason to get along.

MARTIN: And so, finally, tell us about the state of play with discussions between the new government and it has to be sort of, Mr. Santos was a defense secretary, the equivalent in the previous administration of President Uribe, who's actually coming to Washington to teach.

But, so what's the state of play in discussions with this FARC rebel group which has, I think many Americans know is credited with, you know, thousands of kidnappings, terrorizing, you know, many, many people. What's the state of play there?

Mr. FRECHETTE: Okay. The FARC have been active for about 40, 45 years in Colombia and they have never been able to make peace. President Pastrana, who governed from '98 until 2002, actually agreed to negotiate with them and they diddled him. I mean they basically wouldn't meet with him. And he even gave them a chunk of Colombia, the size of Switzerland with 90,000 Colombians. And just handed it to them. And these guys are totalitarians, I mean, they killed people, they did the laws, they did everything.

And finally, after three years, the Colombian people said, you know, that's enough. Let's knock this off. And so Pastrana closed down the negotiation and since then, there's been no negotiations. But with American help, which began right about that time, the army was increased, Pastrana increased the size of the army and the army has just pushed back against the guerillas and they're pushing them into the corner. So there's no real reason right now to negotiate with the guerillas, although there's some talk about it.

MARTIN: And so what would be the U.S. posture toward this? Very briefly.

Mr. FRECHETTE: Oh, I think we'd welcome it. I mean I can't possibly believe the U.S. government would not find a negotiation useful for everyone.

MARTIN: All right. Joining us here to talk about Colombia and Venezuelan relations has been former United States ambassador to Colombia, Myles Frechette. He is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. FRECHETTE: Thank you.

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