Colombian military chief's FARC comment may chill ties with Venezuela

| Aug. 4, 2011 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Christian Science Monitor

The head of Colombia’s armed forces, Adm. Edgar Cely, declared this week in a radio interview that left-wing guerrillas are hiding in Venezuelan territory – an accusation that may chill the warming relations between his country and neighboring Venezuela.

The comments will worry Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has tirelessly attempted to placate his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez since Mr. Santos came to power in August 2010. In April, he declared that Venezuela was entirely free from the FARC, Colombia’s Marxist guerillas. Santos congratulated Mr. Chávez on the achievement in what was believed to be a political move designed to put an end to a breaking of diplomatic ties.

Relations between the countries broke down in early 2010, as Chavez took offense to then Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s suggestions that he was harboring FARC guerillas, but diplomatic ties thawed when Santos took the helm.

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Santos and Chávez are not natural allies and Santos accused the firebrand socialist of plotting to assassinate him only last year. In March, however, Santos described Chávez as his “new best friend.”

Venezuela and Colombia have a strong interest in keeping relations friendly. In 2007, bilateral trade between the two nations hit $7 billion – most of which (about $6 billion) was made up of Colombian exports of food, clothing, and cars. Last year, however, bilateral trade plummeted to just $1.2 billion and is currently at its lowest point in years.

Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera was quick to distance the government from Admiral Cely’s comments about remaining FARC guerillas in Venezuela, dismissing the claim and offering praise to Venezuelan authorities for beefing up security in the notorious border region. Bilateral relations are “on the right track,” he added.

Mr. Rivera cited the capture by Venezulean authorities of Guillermo Torres, also known as Julian Conrado, a FARC commander known for his songwriting and guitar-playing, as a show of strength of the two countries’ relationship.

However, Venezuela seems to be stalling, putting Mr. Torres’ extradition to Colombia on hold as it investigates his health and suitability for transport.

The importance Santos ascribes to his country's relationship with Venezuela was further demonstrated by Colombia's recent extradition of Venezuelan drug lord Walid Makled back to Venezuela, rather than the United States. Both the US and Venezuela had requested Makled’s extradition to their own territories.