July 11, 2008 / 3:04 PM / 12 years ago

ANALYSIS-Venezuela-Colombia spats likely after make-up meet

CARACAS, July 11 (Reuters) - A summit on Friday between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to repair ties will not stop the ideological adversaries from reigniting their disputes when domestic politics demands.

The self-styled socialist revolutionary Chavez and the pro-U.S. conservative Uribe have periodically accused each other of destabilizing their nations, even while developing joint energy deals and fostering $6 billion in annual trade.

With conciliatory words and pledges of neighborly cooperation, the governments this week smoothed the path for Friday’s meeting — the third such event in five years between the stout Chavez and short, bespectacled Colombian.

Uribe, who has record popular ratings at home after last week’s rescue of high-profile rebel-held hostages, needs the make-up session as part of his drive for regional healing after he created rifts in March with a military raid into Ecuador.

Chavez, too, can help polish his image with the summit as he distances himself from Colombian Marxist rebels, following his public support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces earlier in the year, which was generally unpopular at home and abroad.

But the current political detente — symbolized in a tour of a Venezuelan coastal oil refinery to highlight energy integration — may not last.

Months ago, hostility erupted when Colombia bombed inside Venezuelan ally, Ecuador, to kill a rebel leader, prompting Chavez to send tanks to the border and call Uribe a “liar,” while Uribe said Chavez backed genocide.

“(The summit) is good theater, but it’s not much more than that — the two of them are oil and water, they just don’t get along,” said Riordan Roett of the Latin America program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Facing challenging regional elections in November, Chavez may renew tensions with Uribe to distract from problems such as inflation at home, as he did before a 2007 vote on expanding presidential powers that he ultimately lost narrowly.

If Uribe faces renewed pressure from a bribery scandal linked to his 2006 re-election, he could also tap into Colombians’ resentment of Chavez’s perceived support for guerrillas.

TRADE TIES

Regardless, the leaders will seek to preserve trade through any fresh bouts of brinkmanship.

They tend to avoid disturbing bilateral commercial patterns. Even after Chavez ordered troops to the border in March, most crossings points remained open to trade traffic.

Venezuela purchases large amounts of food and textiles from its neighbor, while Colombia depends on petrochemicals and vehicles from across the 1,367-mile (2,200-kilometer) border of Andean mountains and Amazon jungle.

Two neighbors, one a market-friendly Bush administration ally and the other a Cuba supporter opposed to free trade, creates an “explosive contradiction” as Chavez has said.

A talkative leader known for his indiscretion, Chavez enjoys rallying supporters by picking fights with world leaders, including Spanish King Juan Carlos, U.S. President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Uribe, who has a reputation as short-tempered, has developed a single-minded crusade against leftist guerrillas that critics say creates a “with-us-or-against-us” vision.

Uribe and Chavez in 2003 and 2005 also held presidential summits promising to end “microphone diplomacy” and “turn the page” after volleys of insults, only to return to diplomatic spats and name-calling in the following years.

“They have to reach an agreement of coexistence because they’re neighbors, but they have different (political) projects, and of course there are going to be conflicts,” Venezuelan political analyst Ricardo Sucre said. (Editing by Saul Hudson)

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