South American rivals Chávez and Uribe stage lovefest over economy

Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez met in Cartagena in the northern Colombian department of Bolívar on Jan. 24 to discuss economic cooperation in response to the global crisis. They set up an economic commission which started working immediately “to design a package of new tools, to review the ones that exist and to strengthen them,” Chávez said during a press conference after the meeting. The two presidents also agreed to create a $200 million joint fund to extend credits to small and medium businesses and to stimulate trade between the two countries; in addition, they plan a fund for infrastructure work in the areas along the Colombia-Venezuela border.

Trade between the two countries reached a record $7.2 billion in 2008, with Colombian sales to Venezuela totaling about $6 billion; Venezuela is second only to the US as a trading partner for Colombia. At the Jan. 24 press conference Chávez projected that trade between Colombia and Venezuela could be increased by 43% within one year. He stressed the importance of this sort of economic activity to fight a crisis that he called “a threat to the world” which “is starting to strike the five continents harshly.” The presidents plan to sign the accords at their next meeting, in April in Venezuela. (El Nacional, Caracas, Jan. 24 from AFP;, Caracas, Jan. 25;, Caracas, Jan. 25)

This was Chávez’s first official visit to Colombia since Aug. 31, 2007, although the two presidents held meetings at border towns in October 2007 and July 2008. Relations have been tense between Uribe’s rightwing government and the leftist Chávez over the past year and a half, with Colombian defense minister Juan Manuel Santos accusing Chávez of “supporting” the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). (In March 2008, Chávez called Uribe a “lackey,” “liar” and “criminal.”) “[I]f I were supporting any subversive, terrorist or violent movement in Colombia, I wouldn’t be here,” Chávez told reporters when he arrived in Cartagena for the Jan. 24 meeting. He said he was “making a plea to the Colombians and the Venezuelans: let’s not do damage [to our relations], let’s not be masochists.” (La Jornada, Mexico, Jan. 25 from AFP, Notimex, DPA)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 25

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