Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez broke off relations with Colombia on Wednesday, vowing not to restore ties as long as President Alvaro Uribe is in power after the collapse of mediation talks with leftist rebels.
Uribe last week abruptly canceled Chavez's role as a mediator in negotiations with Colombia's Marxist rebels over freeing hostages, sparking a war of words between the two leaders. After recalling his ambassador in protest, Chavez went a step further on Wednesday, escalating a crisis that threatens to damage the 6 billion US dollars in bilateral trade between the Andean neighbors. "I'm telling the world: as long as President Uribe is president of Colombia, I will not have any type of relations with him or with the government of Colombia. I cannot," the populist leader told a political rally in western Venezuela. His move burnishes his nationalist credentials only days before he faces his toughest vote fight to date. Venezuelans cast ballots in a referendum on Sunday on a controversial constitutional review overhaul that, if approved, would allow him to run for reelection indefinitely. Chavez has broken ties with Mexico and Peru in the past, although there was little impact on trade. The Cuba and Iran ally also constantly rails at the United States but has never stopped selling oil to Venezuela's top energy customer. Chavez branded the pro-U.S. Uribe on Tuesday as a "pawn of the empire." Uribe had refused to withdraw Colombia's ambassador in Caracas envoy and said earlier on Wednesday that Chavez should stop acting emotionally. "Heads of state should think not about their personal rage and their own vanity, but more about the need to respect the people they represent," Uribe said. The dispute is the worst between the neighbors since 2005, when Chavez withdrew his ambassador after bounty hunters snatched a Colombian rebel in Caracas and dumped him over the border to be arrested by Colombian police. Uribe invited Chavez in August to help mediate a deal with leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia an exchange of jailed guerrillas for around 50 key hostages they are holding. The hostages include Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen captured in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency and three American contractors caught on a counter-narcotics mission in 2003. However a week ago Chavez, as part of his mediation efforts, directly contacted the Colombian Army Commander in Chief and never came up with the promised hostages proof of life he had promised. Uribe said it was enough and cancelled Chavez' mediation, although he later added he continued open to a "humanitarian exchange" of prisoners.