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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is taking a tougher line with Venezuela's socialist government, urging it to free a prominent opposition leader.
The change in tone comes as Venezuela's deepening economic crisis is leading Latin American governments to reconsider how best to respond to the threat of renewed unrest there.
Since taking office in 2010, Santos had been reluctant to criticize Venezuela, looking to win its support for peace talks with Colombia's rebels and avoid a return of tensions that led to talk of war on both sides of the border in 2008.
Colombia broke with its hands-off policy late Monday and became the first South American nation to call for the release of Leopoldo Lopez, who has been jailed for 11 months on charges of instigating violence at anti-government demonstrations that rocked Venezuela a year ago.
While the U.S. and European governments have condemned Lopez's jailing and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's wider crackdown on the opposition since the unrest, Venezuela's neighbors had not taken sides, preferring instead to push for dialogue.
Venezuela didn't delay in responding to Colombia's new tack. In a statement, the government rejected Colombia's interference in its internal affairs as a "dangerous step backward" in relations. Later in the day, Maduro laid into Santos, saying the staunch U.S. ally had fallen prey to a conspiracy by right-wing elements in Colombia that seeks to destabilize Venezuela's government.
"I don't pretend for Colombia ever to adopt our socialist model or break its dependence on U.S. imperialism," Maduro said at a military ceremony. "But nobody can accept lessons imparted from abroad about who can or cannot be jailed."
The exchange was prompted by Maduro's angry rebuff of former Colombian President Andres Pastrana's attempt to visit Lopez in jail over the weekend along with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. The two conservative leaders were barred from entering the military prison outside Caracas where Lopez is jailed after Maduro lashed out at the wo saying they have "blood on their hands" for supporting groups trying to oust him.
Maduro and Santos could get a chance to hash out their differences Wednesday, when they were both expected to attend a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Costa Rica.
Venezuelan opposition groups, which consider Lopez a political prisoner, rushed to celebrate Colombia's statement.
"Our hearts are smiling," Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, told Bogota's Caracol Radio. "We thank you for this statement because we need your help."
In seeking closer ties with Venezuela, Santos has largely kept silent on a range of irritants, from the arrest of dozens of Colombians as smuggling suspects to the decision to eliminate remittances by the millions of Colombians who have lived for decades in Venezuela and support families back home. Santos also deported several youth activists wanted by Maduro for allegedly plotting attacks against his government, a move widely condemned in both countries.
Maduro almost daily accuses Colombian elites of plotting with the U.S. to overthrow him, and he has claimed, without evidence, that former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe masterminded the murder of a Venezuelan pro-government lawmaker last year.
Analysts said that in reversing course, Santos might be calculating that Maduro's days are numbered as the economic crisis wracking Venezuela with widespread food shortages and 60 percent inflation erodes support for the government. Maduro's approval rating fell to 22 percent in December, according to a poll by Datanalisis, the lowest of any president in 15 years of socialist rule.
"The situation in Venezuela is unsustainable," said Vicente Torrijos, a political scientist at Bogota's Rosario University. "The government considers that it's important to take some distance from Caracas before the situation worsens."
AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report.
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