Santa Marta: The Presidents of Colombia and Venezuela agreed Tuesday to restore diplomatic relations severed nearly three weeks ago by Caracas, smoothing over a dispute over allegations Colombian rebels have camps in Venezuela.
The rapprochement came during a four-hour meeting between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombia`s new leader, Juan Manuel Santos, both of whom said they are starting to rebuild confidence shattered during years of quarrelling.
"We have decided that the two countries will re-establish diplomatic relations," Santos told reporters after the meeting in Santa Marta on Colombia`s Caribbean coast. "President Chavez has said ... that he is not going to allow the presence of outlaw groups in his territory."
Chavez said the countries are starting down a new road after years of often prickly relations under Santos` predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. Uribe`s administration accused Chavez`s socialist-oriented government of aiding the rebels and turning a blind eye to rebel leaders and guerrilla camps in Venezuelan territory.
Chavez reiterated that he doesn`t support the Colombian rebels or any other insurgent group.
"I`ve said it a million times: The Venezuelan government that I lead neither supports nor allows, nor will permit, the presence of guerrillas, or terrorism or drug trafficking," Chavez said.
"I need the president to believe in me," Chavez said. "Believe me ... we haven`t found a single guerrilla camp," he added.
The two presidents said they will appoint ambassadors as soon as possible and will work to rebuild trade that has fallen dramatically in the past year.
They also said Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin will travel to Caracas soon to work on creating multiple joint commissions, including one to oversee security along the Colombian-Venezuelan border.
During repeated disagreements with Uribe`s government, Chavez blasted Colombia`s close ties with Washington and Uribe`s decision to give U.S. troops expanded access to Colombian military bases.
The latest flare-up came July 22 when Chavez broke off diplomatic ties after Uribe`s government publicly presented photos, videos and maps of what it said were Colombian rebel camps inside Venezuela. Chavez accused Uribe of trying to stir up a war in his final days in office.
Santos, who was elected in a landslide and sworn in Saturday, was Uribe`s defense minister. In the run-up to Colombia`s presidential election Chavez expressed concern about the effect a Santos win would have on ties between the countries.
But those fears apparently were set aside Tuesday.
"I came here to turn the page, president," Chavez said.
Santos said they aim to look forward from this point on. "We`re starting from zero."
Santos has promised to continue Uribe`s hard line against Colombia`s rebels — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the smaller National Liberation Army — while also being open to dialogue.
He also is moving to repair frayed ties with Ecuador as well as Venezuela.
Chavez and Santos met at a colonial-era estate where 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar died. Chavez, who views Bolivar as the inspiration of his socialist movement, said it was appropriate to be making amends at a place he considers sacred.