Leaders of Colombia, Venezuela Seek Improved Ties

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez and his Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos sought to improve relations Tuesday despite ideological differences and recent bitter disputes between the neighboring South American nations.

Santos said that although Caracas and Bogota have had their differences, "we need to work together."

"We will be brothers forever," Chavez said of the two nations after receiving Santos at the presidential palace, where a military band played both national anthems and soldiers in colonial-era uniforms stood at attention. Santos was making his first visit to Venezuela since taking office Aug. 7.

Chavez feuded for years with Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and severed diplomatic ties in July in response to allegations that Venezuela's socialist-oriented government has provided safe haven to leftist Colombian rebels. Chavez denies his administration turns a blind eye to guerrilla camps in Venezuelan territory.

Relations also hit a rocky patch in March 2008, when Chavez protested a Colombian cross-border bombing raid in Ecuador that killed a top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Santos was Uribe's defense minister at the time and ordered the operation.

Trade between the two nations, traditionally strong, fell drastically during Uribe's last year in office, as Chavez ordered officials to stop buying food from Colombia and signed agreements with allies such as Argentina and Brazil to replace Colombian imports.

Since this year's election in Colombia, however, both Santos and Chavez have sought rapprochement. In August, they agreed to restore full diplomatic ties and repair trade relations undermined by years of accusations and mutual distrust.

"If we work together, our people will benefit. If we end up fighting, our people will end being hurt," Santos said Tuesday. "I believe you and I, President Chavez, understand this."

Chavez said he hopes "no foreign force is capable of provoking any type of damage in these fraternal relations," a reference to the United States, which he has repeatedly accused of attempting to impede Latin American integration.

U.S. officials reject the accusations.