November 22, 2007 / 11:34 PM / in 11 years

Colombian mediation failure hurts talkative Chavez

CARACAS (Reuters) - Maybe he should have listened to the king.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez exhausted his Colombian counterpart’s patience by speaking out of turn once too often, prompting President Alvaro Uribe on Wednesday to end his neighbor’s mediation with rebels on freeing hostages.

With less than two weeks before Chavez faces a close referendum on scrapping his term limits, the break-off delivered a diplomatic defeat to the Cuba ally and highlighted what many voters dislike about him — he cannot stop talking.

Accused of breaking a protocol accord by bypassing Uribe and contacting a Colombian general about the hostages, his ejection as mediator comes just weeks after the outspoken Chavez also provoked Spain’s king to tell him to “shut up.”

Chavez’s mediation failure robs him of an opportunity to burnish his credentials as a statesman and hurts his image as he seeks to convince skeptical voters they should pass a December 2 referendum to expand the former coup leader’s powers.

“The Venezuelan president exaggerated and abused the role of a mediator,” said Felix Gerardo Arellano, an international relations academic at the Central University of Venezuela.

“It seemed more like a media show than a negotiation.”

King Juan Carlos rebuked Chavez at a summit after he interrupted Spanish Prime Minister Jose Rodriguez Zapatero and called the previous prime minister a “fascist.”

Chavez, who has sparked diplomatic flaps before — such as when he called U.S. President George W. Bush the devil or Mexico’s president an American “lap dog” — refused to keep quiet.

Instead, the leftist has spent hours railing at “colonial arrogance,” demanded the king apologize and threatened billions of dollars of Spanish investment in the OPEC nation.

The Colombian talks also showed how Chavez’s chatter can cause him problems, even if captives’ relatives criticized Uribe for scrapping the mediation too soon.

Chavez had won Washington’s backing to hold the rebel talks and French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed him in Paris.

But he refused to heed repeated complaints from the Uribe administration. Announcing negotiating positions on television, Chavez’s folksy, talkative style jarred with the typically quiet diplomacy needed for hostage negotiations.

On Wednesday when he spoke directly with a general, Uribe ran out of patience, saying he broke an agreement the two leaders had that they alone would manage the discussions.

TALK SHOW

Chavez, who is on television on average 40 hours a week, acknowledges he finds it difficult to keep his mouth closed.

He usually fails to keep to time limits he sets himself for speeches. And, aware his passions can get the better of him, he sometimes checks himself at public events, drawing laughter by telling audiences “don’t start me off.”

“That’s who he is. He talks a lot. He is not going to change,” said Marianella Aragor, 28, a store employee, adding she hoped he would dedicate more time to Venezuelan affairs.

Generally his poor supporters applaud his style but a large minority in Venezuela say they are tired of listening to him.

Now his failed mediation complicates his referendum bid in a polarized nation, where opinion is divided over his reforms.

A year ago, when Chavez won re-election in a landslide by spending record oil income on schools and housing, he campaigned with an air of invincibility.

But Chavez has alienated some traditional supporters with a constitution overhaul that may allow also him to pick favorites over elected regional officials and censure the media.

While most pollsters predict he is likely to win, they warn of a possible surprise because many Venezuelans say they have not decided how they will vote.

“He is not doing well this month,” Saul Cabrera of the pollster Consultores 21 said. “It started with the king ... and now Uribe has pulled the rug from under him when he thought the mediation was going to be a positive for him at home.”

Additional reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel, Brian Ellsworth and Patricia Rondon; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and David Wiessler

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