CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search) and his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe (search), are trying to smooth over their worst diplomatic dispute in years with a face-to-face meeting to discuss the recent capture of a Colombian rebel in Venezuela.
The disagreement erupted after Colombian officials acknowledged paying bounty hunters to abduct a senior member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (search), or FARC (search), off the streets of Caracas in December and deliver him to Colombian police across the border.
Colombia has long suspected that Venezuela's government harbors Marxist rebels, while Chavez has accused Colombia of bending under pressure from U.S. officials who he charges are seeking to isolate Venezuela and create tension between the neighboring countries.
Chavez, a self-proclaimed "revolutionary" whose closest ally is Cuba's Fidel Castro (search), has said the dispute is "practically over" and should be resolved in Thursday's talks with Uribe. During past meetings the two leaders have put aside their differences to find common ground and have even traded jokes.
"In this conversation I'm going to speak frankly ... and I'm sure that he will be frank with me too," Chavez said Monday during a visit to Brazil. "The solution, turning the page, will depend on this conversation."
The stakes are high. Trade between the two nations, which reached $1.7 billion last year, has slowed since Chavez called back his ambassador to Bogota three weeks ago and suspended commercial agreements, including the construction of a gas pipeline.
The ambassador returned earlier this week, and officials on both sides have said they are hopeful the meeting will end the dispute.
Colombia initially defended its policy of offering reward money as a necessary tool against terrorism, but officials later said they were prepared to review their policy of paying for captures on Venezuelan soil.
Rodrigo Granda (search), the imprisoned Colombian rebel whose Dec. 13 capture sparked the dispute, said Wednesday that he was kidnapped by Colombian police assisted by "corrupt Venezuelan colleagues" and that U.S. agents also assisted in the operation — a charge the State Department has denied.
In a statement faxed to The Associated Press, Granda said he freely traveled abroad with legal travel documents as a rebel envoy but said no foreign government has consented to the presence of FARC members.
Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel (search) said Thursday's meeting "would be positive not only for the two countries, but also for the region."