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Page last updated at 02:35 GMT, Saturday, 12 July 2008 03:35 UK

Latin America's odd couple

By James Ingham
BBC News, Caracas

Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez, 11 July 2008
The two ideological opponents have shared interests

"I will welcome him like a brother," President Hugo Chavez said of his fellow South American leader Alvaro Uribe just before his arrival in Venezuela.

His warm words were a far cry from other, less flattering comments made to Colombia's president just a few months ago.

Some might be sceptical, but the presidents do now appear to be trying to get on after a row that put the once-friendly countries on a war footing.

"I love Colombians from my soul," said President Chavez as he sipped coffee while waiting for his neighbour.

"What I have for Colombia is affection, love and commitment to our true brotherhood and union".

Positive words, but behind this public show of unity, there are fundamental differences between the two leaders that will be hard to resolve.

Different paths

Colombia and Venezuela should be fairly similar. They were once one country, liberated from Spanish rule by the same man.

But their recent history has shaped two very different nations.

Colombia is known around the world for its internal conflict. Marxist guerrillas plunged the country into four decades of internal fighting and insecurity.

The rise of paramilitaries and the drugs trade made Colombia a pretty dire place.

Neighbouring Venezuela meanwhile had oil. Some people got rich but many more did not.

The country became divided between the haves and the have-nots as slums appeared alongside luxury homes.

Against this backdrop came President Uribe and President Chavez.

Brink of war

Mr Uribe's right-wing politics were approved by war-weary Colombians.

His promise to rid the country of insecurity got him into power and has kept him popular.

President Chavez is at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

His socialist revolution promises to give power to the poor and rid the country of poverty.

He too is popular among his core supporters, but he has spent almost his entire presidency fighting a critical opposition that despises him.

So with such a different point of view, it was not hugely surprising when the two came to blows.

A Colombian military strike on a Farc rebel camp in Ecuador enraged President Chavez who ordered tanks to the border and cut off all diplomatic relations.

Insults were traded. Mr Chavez called Mr Uribe a liar, a coward, a criminal and a pawn of the US empire.

Mr Uribe fought back, accusing Mr Chavez of funding terrorism through the Farc.

Trade ties

But despite the tension, life for Colombians and Venezuelans went on as normal.

The two countries are hugely important trading partners and that business continued, in fact grew.

Between January and April this year, $2bn of goods crossed the border, 30% more than in the same period last year.

The economic links between the two countries are simply too important to risk. Venezuela could not do without the imports and Colombian exporters would be hard hit if the market was lost.

But it is not just trade that ties the two. This year a newly built pipeline began pumping Colombian gas to Venezuela.

In a few years the flow will be reversed, as Venezuela plans to drill more of this natural resource and sell it to Colombia.

Their 2,000km (1,240 mile) border is also a shared concern. It is a difficult line to police, as it passes through thick jungle and mountain terrain.

It is prime smuggling territory and a haven for guerrilla groups, who are widely reported to pass freely between the two countries.

Then there are the Colombians living in Venezuela - some four million of them. None of them wants to see the two countries fight and will be looking for a distinct improvement in relations.

Poles apart

Judging by the atmosphere of the talks, that improvement is coming. The presidents spoke of turning a page, of a new era that will unite the countries.

There was talk of working together in many ways, with plans for a cross-border railway a sign of the potential unity.

But there was little mention of the subject that continues to divide them.

President Chavez once again reiterated that he is interested in a role in negotiations with the Farc, but there was no offer from Colombia.

Despite that, the presidents seemed jovial and ready to bury the hatchet.

"We're destined to be together always," said President Chavez. "We are the same people."

That may be true of many people who live here, but it is not true of the presidents who politically are poles apart. A shaky friendship is back on for now, but for how long?



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