Mon, Jan 24, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Ties between Colombia, Venezuela worst in decades

DIPLOMATIC ROW After Colombia spirited a fugitive rebel out of Venezuela without Caracas' knowledge, relations between the countries have grown increasingly icy


Rodrigo Granda is a leading operative in Colombia's oldest rebel group, a man who for years roamed the world drumming up support for his organization, with Colombia's government in hot pursuit.

Yet, for two years before his capture last month in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, he lived comfortably in a two-story house in this picturesque mountain community that is a weekend retreat for Venezuelan army generals, Caracas businessmen and well-off retirees. He came and went freely, ordering construction supplies for his home and frolicking in his pool while still serving as the "foreign minister" for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the authorities in Bogota, Colombia, say. In fact, he had enjoyed the privileges of Venezuelan citizenship and had voted in a recent election.

The revelations about Granda's apparently breezy day-to-day life in Venezuela and the murky operation that led to his capture in Caracas have led to the most serious diplomatic crisis between neighbors who are ideological opposites: the leftist Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chavez and the conservative Colombian administration of President Alvaro Uribe.

The dispute has drawn in the Bush administration, which on Jan. 15 threw its support behind Uribe, Washington's closest ally in Latin America. Then on Tuesday in her Senate confirmation hearing, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state-designate, said that Venezuela's government had been a "negative" force in the region while stifling the opposition at home.

"We are very concerned about a democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way, and some of the steps he's taken against the media, against the opposition, I think are really very deeply troubling," Rice said at the hearing.

The comments drew an angry rebuke from Chavez's government, which in August won a landslide election that reinforced Chavez's mandate. The Bush administration's strident opposition has appeared to end any chance that the US could play a role in resolving any crisis involving Chavez's government.

This week, Brazil demonstrated its growing diplomatic assertiveness after announcing that its left-leaning president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is close to Uribe and Chavez, would mediate the crisis.

Chavez's government accused Colombia of having bribed a group of Venezuelan National Guardsmen to arrest Granda on Dec. 13. Saying that Colombia had violated Venezuelan sovereignty, Chavez recalled his ambassador to Bogota, suspended accords and demanded an apology.

Colombia responded defiantly, issuing a presidential bulletin saying it had the right to offer rewards leading to the capture of Colombian rebels, wherever they might hide. Colombia also turned over the names of rebels it says often seek refuge in Venezuela. On Friday, Venezuela said it would investigate.

Colombia said it issued an international arrest warrant for Granda more than a year ago, yet he had been so nonchalant about security that in early December he openly attended two conferences of leftists in Venezuela.

Venezuela says it was never alerted about Granda and contends that his citizenship papers were fraudulent.

Here in Las Mercedes de Tasajera, about two hours southwest of Caracas, residents, local residents remember Granda simply as the Colombian, a man who was not averse to meeting and talking to his neighbors but who revealed little about himself.

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