CARACAS, Venezuela – CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — In less than three weeks, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez went from warning of a war with Colombia to offering ideas for peacemaking in his neighbor's decades-long conflict with leftist rebels.
Chavez made the abrupt shift while seeking a fresh start with Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos — one he got Tuesday when the two leaders agreed to restore diplomatic relations during a meeting in Colombia.
It's an open question how genuine their rapprochement may be, and how long it may last.
Major pitfalls remain due to Colombia's concerns that Venezuela gives haven to leftist Colombian rebels, and it's unclear if Chavez intends to provide the security cooperation Colombia has long sought.
Still, despite their differences, the presidents have some intersecting interests such as rebuilding trade, and Santos' openness to dialogue with Colombian rebels has been well-received by Chavez.
With Santos taking a more conciliatory tone than his hard-line predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, Chavez expressed optimism before the meeting that they will begin to "rebuild what was broken to pieces."
Chavez severed diplomatic ties July 22 after Uribe's government publicly presented photos, videos and maps of what it said were Colombian rebel camps inside Venezuela. Chavez accused Uribe of lying and plotting an attack in Venezuela similar to a bloody 2008 raid on a rebel camp in Ecuador.
Over the years, Chavez has often used his diplomatic spats with U.S.-allied Colombia to rally supporters, calling Uribe's government a pawn of Washington.
Santos was defense minister under Uribe, and shared credit for making military gains against the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — a fact that initially led Chavez to label Santos a "war monger" during Colombia's presidential campaign and to warn that tensions could worsen if he was elected.
Chavez had an apparent change of heart as Santos emphasized an interest in mending ties — especially trade that benefits Colombian food producers.
Trade has fallen dramatically in the past year, in part because Chavez froze relations to protest Colombia's decision to grant the U.S. military expanded access to its military bases. His concerns about the presence of U.S. troops remain, and Chavez is likely to keep playing up his antagonism toward the United States even as he tries to make amends with Washington's closest ally in Latin America.
Chavez seems willing to ease up on his vitriolic approach toward Colombia as long as Santos agrees to raise suspicions about rebels discreetly and avoid public finger-pointing.
Chavez says his main prerequisite for normal ties is mutual respect, and Santos has pledged just that while saying he wants "sincere and open communication." Santos is widely expected to keep seeking Venezuela's cooperation on border security, but through diplomatic channels rather than public complaints.
To what extent trade may bounce back is unclear because Venezuela's economy is in a recession and the decline in Colombian imports has been blamed in part on his government's strict limits on foreign currency trading. Yet importing more from Colombia would likely bring economic benefits for Venezuela, which is being battered by 30 percent inflation and has replaced Colombian goods by importing products at a higher cost from other countries.
Yet, even as Chavez and Santos pledge to abandon the acrimony, underlying tensions remain.
Chavez insists no illegal armed groups will be tolerated and says he isn't aiding the guerrillas. Lately he has been offering advice to the rebels, publicly urging them on Sunday to release dozens of remaining hostages and saying they should realize their armed struggle no longer has a future.
But as long as Colombian officials remain concerned that Venezuela isn't taking action against rebels who cross the border to rest and resupply, the issue could flare and cause relations to fall apart again.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ian James has reported on Venezuela as Caracas bureau chief for The Associated Press since 2004.