Hugo Chavez went on the offensive in Caracas following his partys poor election showing this fall, pushing through a slate of measures that amounted to a sustained political power grab ahead of the swearing-in of the new Parliament last week. On the international scene, though, the famously combative president has been striking an unusually conciliatory tone. Chavez created a pleasant New Years photo-op by smiling and playing nice with Hillary Clinton in Brazil, then suggested that Venezuela would welcome a new US ambassador (he rejected the most recent nominee in September). For neighbouring Colombia, which Chavez has long portrayed as a proxy for a meddling US government, the change has been particularly pronounced. Relations with Bogota were icy as ever when President Juan Manuel Santos took office this summer-two year earlier, Chavez had even ordered tanks to the 1,375-mile border, which was closed in 2009, and Colombia openly accused him of aiding and abetting its leftist guerrillas, who take refuge on Venezuelan turf. Chavez has since worked to embrace his new counterpart, meeting personally with Santos, deporting guerrillas, reopening the border and agreeing to repay Venezuelas $800m debt to Colombian business. In the Chavez governments strongest gesture to date, Venezuela late last month arrested and agreed to extradite a top guerilla commander, a move that has made some observers cautiously optimistic that Chavezs cooperation could push Colombias peace process along. In 2008, when Chavez called Colombia the Israel of Latin America, he was riding a wave of regional clout after his backing helped a string of allies into power-Bolivias Evo Morales, Hondurass Manuel Zelaya, and Ecuadors Rafael Correa. But it has been a steady stream of bad news for Chavez since. Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 coup, and last year Correa nearly suffered a similar fate. Now, Morales is facing a wave of unrest; last week protesters in La Paz even burned the Venezuelan flag. But it is Chavezs headaches at home that may be his primary reasons for easing up abroad. This is a very different Chavez than two years ago, says Javier Corrales, a professor at Amherst who specialises in Venezuelan democracy. Opening the Colombian border restored trade with a key economic partner, while easing tensions overall indirectly help relations with the US, which is the top importer of Venezuelan oil. Murder and crime rates, meanwhile, continue to spike to all-time highs-a problem many observers say is exacerbated by a growing drug trade, which Chavez would be wise to address in concert with Colombia. Crime and the economic concerns were front and centre in last years election setback. Those issues should continue to dog Chavez in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election - and he might elect to keep his trademark aggression focused inward as he gears up for what is starting to look like a serious fight. Newsweek