Months of simmering tension between Colombia and Venezuela exploded into a shouting match between Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Rio Group Summit in Mexico on Monday, reports news agency AFP.
The altercation between Uribe and Chavez occurred during a private lunch for national leaders at the Cancun summit, according to a Colombian official, who asked to remain anonymous. No media was present.
According to the official, the incident was sparked when Uribe reproached Chavez for Venezuela’s unofficial trade embargo against Colombia.
Chavez reportedly responded that his life is in danger due to the presence of 300 Colombian paramilitaries in Venezuela, who came to assassinate him.
“Uribe questioned Chavez about his country’s trade embargo on Colombia. Chavez didn’t like this and began to play the victim, he accused Colombia of sending paramilitaries to kill him and he threatened to leave the meeting,” a Colombian diplomatic source in Bogota, who wished to remain anonymous, told AFP.
“‘Be a man! These issues are meant to be discussed in these venues. You’re brave speaking at a distance, but a coward when it comes to talking face to face,” was Uribe’s response to Chavez’s threat to leave.
Chavez then reportedly told Uribe to “go to hell!”
At this point, several presidents, including Cuban President Raul Castro, intervened to prevent the situation from escalating.
“How is it possible that we’re fighting at a summit intended to unite Latin American and Caribbean countries?” Castro is reported to have said.
The presidents of Mexico, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Jamaica and Argentina were also seated at the table at the time, according to a source from the Mexican delegation.
The presidents then met first with Uribe and later with Chavez and agreed to form a commission to help resolve the ongoing disputes between the two nations. Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez confirmed on Tuesday that the dispute has led to the formation of a group of arbitrators to act as mediators in the conflict.
Bermudez told W Radio that the creation of the group of mediators, which reportedly includes the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, was a positive outcome of the heated discussion between the Andean nations’ heads of states.
Neither the Venezuelan president nor Venezuelan authorities gave their version of events to the media, but Chavez did state that a group of friendly nations had been formed “to win back trust.”
Shortly after the incident Uribe told the press that his government and Venezuela’s had agreed “to cease harmful public interventions” and confirmed a group of nations had been formed “to help overcome differences [between Colombia and Venezuela].”
Mexican President Felipe Calderon, host of the summit at which 32 Latin American countries are assembled, commented that Venezuela and Colombia need to create a dialogue to “avoid accusations and recriminations.”
Uribe and Chavez will continue to participate in the summit, which ends Tuesday.
Diplomatic relations between Colombia and Venezuela are currently frozen after Colombia signed an agreement last year with the U.S. that allows the Americans to use Colombian military bases and civilian airports for counternarcotics and counterterrorism missions.
Chavez believes the agreement undermines sovereignty in the region and is its most outspoken opponent.
The border region has long been a source of tension between the countries, as Venezuela accuses Colombia of allowing right-wing paramilitary fighters to enter Venezuelan territory, while Colombia says the border is often crossed by left-wing guerrillas seeking refuge in the neighboring country.
Frozen diplomatic relations have adversely affected the Colombian economy, with exports to Venezuela down 79% in December 2009.