CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government demanded an apology from Colombia on Friday for "xenophobic" remarks by its vice president, who used a derogatory term for Venezuelans while vowing foreigners would not benefit from social programs.


Relations between the South American neighbors have been tense for decades, in part because waves of Colombians have sought refuge from five decades of civil war through emigration to Venezuela.


That trend has started to reverse in the last few years as a peace deal has ended Colombia's civil war and Venezuela's economic crisis has led many to emigrate.


During a Thursday visit to a border town where he was giving out state-built homes, Columbian Vice President German Vargas said: "No way in the world is this for 'venecos,'" according to a recording of the event by local media.


"There is no place in Colombia where people who are not from the country are allowed to benefit from social programs."


The Spanish word "veneco" is widely used around South America to refer to Venezuelans in a disparaging way.

"The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela demands from the Colombian government an appropriate apology to Venezuelans offended by the xenophobic and discriminatory comments of the vice president," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

It warned the remarks could incite aggression and violence against Venezuelans living in Colombia.

Neither Vargas, 54, nor Colombia's government has responded to Venezuela's complaint.

Vargas, who has focused much of his work as vice president on infrastructure including subsidized housing, is expected to stand down in March to run for president in 2018.

He recently apologized for hitting a bodyguard trying to intercede between him and a woman who approached him.

The Maduro government itself is no stranger to strong language toward Colombia, frequently denouncing its ruling elite as "fascists" and "coupsters" intent on bringing down socialism in Venezuela.

Venezuela has closed the border several times in a crackdown on smugglers, and last year it deported hundreds of Colombians it accused of criminal activities.

(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Julia Symmes Cobb; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Lisa Von Ahn)