Venezuela Reopening Embassy in Colombia After Diplomatic Truce

Talk of war has faded in the Andes in a matter of days, the product of a diplomatic truce between Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador that allowed the leaders of all three to avoid a protracted conflict while also saving face.

President Hugo Chavez's government announced Sunday it is restoring full diplomatic ties with Colombia and reopening its embassy in Bogota after smoothing over a crisis sparked by Colombia's cross-border attack on a rebel base in Ecuador. Venezuela also invited back Colombian diplomats expelled by Chavez last week.

But some watchers of Latin American politics viewed the quick reconciliation as a superficial patching up of deeper disputes -- and a politically expedient way out of a damaging confrontation not wanted or needed by Chavez, Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe or Ecuador's Rafael Correa.

"They probably all wanted a quick settlement. Ecuador had won sympathy as the aggrieved party, Venezuela had gotten good press as the champion of sovereignty and Colombia had accomplished its goal in killing the FARC leader -- and an apology was a low price to pay for ending the episode," said Shelley McConnell, a Latin America expert at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.

As he apologized Friday, Uribe also pledged to never again carry out another act like the March 1 strike on Ecuadorean soil, which killed 25 people including Raul Reyes, a top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Just days after deploying troops to their borders in response, Correa and Chavez shook hands with the U.S.-allied Uribe on Friday in a stunning turnaround that ended tense debate at a summit in the Dominican Republic.

The veteran journalist Eleazar Diaz Rangel, editor of the Venezuelan newspaper Ultimas Noticias, called the making-up "the greatest surprise imaginable in a Latin American summit," crediting Chavez with showing a commitment to "the search for peace in Colombia."

Some perceived other motivations in Chavez's willingness to accept reconciliation.

For one, widespread criticism of the Colombian military incursion among Latin American leaders "allows Chavez to characterize the incident as a diplomatic victory," said Steve Ellner, a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East.

And after having threatened to dramatically scale back trade with Colombia, Ellner said, the deal let Chavez avoid "having to pay an economic price for his stands."

Colombia is a major trading partner, providing billions of dollars (euros) in needed imports each year, including milk and other food items that have been scarce recently in Venezuela.

During the conflict last week, Chavez had angrily denounced Uribe as a liar and the head of a "genocidal government."

Venezuelan opposition leader Manuel Rosales said Chavez made an about-face because there was "gigantic rejection" of his warnings of war among Venezuelans.

"The Chavez who appeared two days after the announcement of troops being mobilized wasn't the same one" who ordered closed the embassy in Bogota, Rosales said.

Chavez wasn't the only leader whose stance appeared pragmatic.

McConnell noted that "after Uribe pledged to respect international borders in the future, (Ecuador and Venezuela) reaffirmed their commitment to combatting terrorism" -- a cooperative signal she said could help make Uribe's apology palatable to the Colombian military and public.

Uribe also pledged not to follow through on his threat to seek charges against Chavez at an international court for allegedly supporting the FARC -- though Colombian officials have publicly released a collection of documents found on a rebel laptop claiming Chavez and Correa conspired with the guerrillas.

By forcefully making his case at the summit, "Uribe put up an amazing display of diplomatic brinksmanship to end up with the upper hand," said Patrick Esteruelas, a Latin America analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group. "Correa and Chavez could not afford to address any more questions concerning possible links with the FARC."

Despite their eventual handshakes at the summit, underlying tensions remain.

Correa said Saturday it will be "difficult to recover trust" in Uribe's U.S.-allied government.

Chavez has openly expressed sympathy for the FARC -- a major irritation for Uribe -- and more friction is likely as the Venezuelan leader tries to help broker a swap of imprisoned guerrillas for rebel-held hostages. The captives include three U.S. military contractors and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.