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Colombia's Santos to Host Meeting with Venezuela's Chavez

The presidents of Colombia and Venezuela are set to meet on Tuesday in an effort to repair a diplomatic break due to Venezuela's alleged support of leftist rebels in Colombia. The security and trade partnership between the two countries has suffered during the past two years.

The meeting in Santa Marta, Colombia, comes only three days after Juan Manuel Santos took the oath of office as Colombia's president.

The former defense minister used his inauguration speech on Saturday to try to set a new tone with Venezuela. He said that as president, he will seek peace with Colombia's neighbors. He offered a frank and direct dialogue with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as soon as possible.

In Caracas, Mr. Chavez welcomed the offer and said he would go to the meeting with an open heart and an extended hand.

Political scientist Eduardo Gamarra of Florida International University says the meeting is a small but important measure in repairing ties between the nations. "It will be an interesting meeting [on Tuesday]. I'm not going to be too optimistic about the outcome, but it is a good first step," he said.

The meeting marks a shift from the harsh words exchanged between Mr. Chavez and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. The Colombian leader accused Venezuela of supporting rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Mr. Chavez criticized Mr. Uribe for waging a military campaign on rebels that threatened the entire region.

It is unclear whether Mr. Santos and Mr. Chavez will address these issues in Tuesday's meeting.

Latin American affairs specialist Bruce Bagley of the University of Miami says the meeting is an important opportunity for the new Colombian president to assess the kind of partnership he can expect with Mr. Chavez. "He's going to determine to what extent Chavez is willing to undertake tighter security on the border, better control of the FARC and renewal of bilateral trade, which reached $7 billion in 2008 and is down to $2 billion now," he said.

Trade between the two countries began to fall in 2008, after Mr. Chavez cut ties with Colombia following a Colombian military raid inside Ecuador. Colombia's government later apologized for the attack that killed a FARC leader and 18 others.

The diplomatic rupture has adversely affected Colombian agriculture, which had supplied a large share of Venezuela's food imports. Florida International University's Eduardo Gamarra says the disrupted trade has hurt Venezuela as well. "Venezuela is probably experiencing its worst economic moment in a decade, and part of it is the situation with Colombia. For both, good trade relations are good for both," he said.

Some critics of Mr. Chavez say the Venezuelan leader might have the most to lose, if he repairs relations with Colombia. Venezuelan opposition groups have accused Mr. Chavez of using the dispute with Colombia to distract attention from problems at home.

The University of Miami's Bruce Bagley says he expects the Venezuelan leader to take the same approach in the run-up to mid-term elections in September. "The elections loom very large in Chavez's mind, so he is not going to do anything to alter the current pattern or lose national sentiment raised against Colombia until after mid-September," he said.

It is unclear whether improved ties with Colombia could affect the vote. Public opinion polls suggest that candidates from Mr. Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela will face a stronger challenge from opposition candidates for the National Assembly than in recent elections.