Caracas, Venezuela, December 19, 2005—In Colombia’s latest move to ease ongoing tensions over the country’s political refugee policy, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe publicly condemned a meeting between Venezuelan dissident generals and Colombian intelligence.
“Our [military intelligence] has no business meeting with military officers who have left the Venezuelan Army and who now have problems with the Venezuelan government,” said Uribe.
After Venezuela’s ephemeral 2002 coup, which replaced the elected president with the head of the Chamber of Commerce and dissolved the National Assembly, Constitution, and Supreme Court, Colombia granted asylum to suspected coup leaders. Among these was Pedro Carmona, who replaced democratically elected president Hugo Chávez Frías for two days.
Since then, Colombia has appeared to make changes to its refugee policy, denying asylum requests from at least six Venezuelan dissident military officers currently living in Colombia, but still allowing them to stay in the country on special visas. Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel announced that Venezuela may seek their extradition.
Uribe condemned the meeting after Chávez presented him with evidence that the two presidents say shows that meetings between the Venezuelan dissidents and Colombian intelligence took place.
Venezuelan Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel said, “the meetings which took place in Bogotá dealt with a conspiracy against Venezuela and against its government.” While a list of participants was not released, Rangel said that Pedro Carmona was among the participants. Chávez said that an official of the United States also participated.
However, the head of the Colombian secret policy (DAS) Andrés Peñate, characterized the meetings as “a simple academic conversation.”
“Under President Uribe’s orders, we investigated and found out that there had indeed been a meeting of Venezuela opposition ex-military officers in the academic headquarters of our military forces, but it didn’t deal with a conspiracy, but rather it was a conference in which the Venezuelans were guests,” he added.
Uribe reacted to the depiction with derision. “Are you trying to tell me that military intelligence was in an academic meeting with military coup plotters? The only way forward is to tell the truth, and when mistakes are made, not to repeat them,” said Uribe.
“I called the director of the DAS this morning and told him: Man, be extremely careful with these declarations, stop theorizing and get to work, get to capturing all the guilty parties,” he added.
Rangel also had strong words for Peñate, saying that his comments about the academic nature of the meeting made it appear frivolous. “The director of the DAS talked about a simple academic meeting, which is to say that now euphemistically speaking, conspiracy can be attributed to academic meetings. The information that we have is perfectly clear, that this meeting was subversive in nature,” Rangel said.
Rangel noted that Uribe had taken the meeting with appropriate seriousness, and added that because of his reaction, “maybe now in Department of State circles, President Uribe has become part of the axis of evil, too.”
Uribe made clear the importance of uncovering these meetings to the relationship between the two Latin American countries. “I didn’t permit these meetings, and we won’t make excuses for them. We will simply tell the truth…Because if we don’t tell the truth, how can we build a relationship of trust between ourselves and Venezuela? We wouldn’t be able to,” said Uribe.
“The Colombian government won’t allow anyone to hatch conspiracies against a democratic government, and even less, against our brothers,” he added.
Despite the difference in politics between Chávez and Uribe, disagreements over the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement, border problems, and a brief diplomatic rift over the arrest of a Colombian guerilla in Caracas, the two countries have maintained relatively good relations. The two countries are critical to each other’s economies: Venezuela is Colombia’s second largest trading partner after the United States, and access through Colombia is critical to Venezuela’s plan to expand its oil markets, according to the Los Angeles Times.