Editor's Note: Readers may find it useful to refer to a Washington Post editorial on the same subject. The author references this editorial in his response to reader comments, which is posted directly below the original op-ed text.
By Mark Weisbrot
It has had the makings of a telenovela – a Latin American soap opera: hostages held for years deep in the Colombian jungle, anxious anticipation and tearful reunions, and most spectacular of all, the boy: Emmanuel. Born three and a half years ago in captivity, of a liaison between a FARC guerilla and captive Clara Rojas, his tiny arm broken at birth by a difficult Caesarean under jungle conditions, surviving leishmaniasis and dumped off on a poor rural family that transferred him to the state – he somehow survived and was found in time to reunite with his mother as she savored her long-awaited freedom.
But for those who had the time to look beyond the headlines, there were important political realities that the drama underscored. Most importantly, the Bush Administration has once again staked out a position on a long-running armed conflict that puts Washington outside the mainstream of the international community.
First, the facts: Clara Rojas was a vice-presidential candidate when she was kidnapped by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in 2002; at the same time, the FARC also kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. Consuelo Gonzalez, a Colombian Congresswoman, was kidnapped in 2001. The FARC is holding hundreds of other hostages and prisoners, and hopes to exchange at least some of the high-profile ones for prisoners held by the government.
The Colombian government appears to believe that it can win the 40-year war through purely military (and paramilitary) means. The Bush Administration shares this view, and supplies Colombia with more than $600 million annually in military aid, which is sometimes labeled "anti-drug" aid. But there has been increasing pressure for negotiations: from inside Colombia, led by the courageous Senator Piedad Cordoba; from the families of the hostages; and from Europe – where Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, is well-known and has much sympathy.
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela offered to mediate, and in August, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia accepted his offer. Uribe and Chavez had maintained a mostly cordial relationship for years, despite being on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
But on November 21st, Uribe suddenly withdrew Chavez's authorization to mediate. The move came just after a phone call from President Bush, who clearly did not want Chavez to have an international diplomatic success on the eve of a Venezuelan constitutional referendum (December 2). Chavez was furious at what he saw as a betrayal by Uribe, and suspected Uribe was caving to his most important funder. Uribe's stated reason for sacking Chavez was that the Venezuelan president had, very briefly, talked to one of his generals after Piedad Cordoba had passed the phone to him. It seemed like a flimsy pretext for cutting off the negotiations without even a phone call to Venezuela, and Chavez let loose with a barrage of insults.
But Chavez persisted and by the weekend of New Year's Eve, a mission was assembled to receive the two women and the boy Emmanuel, with representatives of Brazil, Argentina (former President Nestor Kirchner), Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Switzerland and the Red Cross on hand. While the other governments expressed hopes that the release could lead to peace talks, Washington showed no interest in the effort. It failed, and the story took a new twist when it turned out the boy was not in the FARC's custody after all but in foster care in Bogota.
On Friday, the two women hostages were finally released to Venezuelan and Red Cross officials, and on Sunday Clara Rojas was reunited with her son.
Interestingly, the foreign policy establishment here – which includes most of the major media – does not seem to notice that the Bush Administration is the outlier in this situation. For them, Chavez is the enemy, and his intervention is viewed with suspicion, and even as an attempt to side with the FARC.
In the last few days, Chavez has called for the FARC to be recognized as insurgents rather than terrorists. This has been portrayed as "support" for the FARC. However, his position is the same as other governments in the region, which have consistently rebuffed U.S. pressure to officially label the FARC as a "terrorist" organization. Brazil’s government has said that to classify the FARC as “terrorist” organization would likely damage any prospects of negotiating a solution to the country’s civil conflict.
The FARC clearly does engage in actions that can be considered terrorist, including kidnappings. However, so does the Colombian government, and over the years international human rights groups have found right-wing paramilitaries linked to the government responsible for the vast majority of atrocities. And during the last year, revelations of ties between Uribe's political allies and the death squads have severely damaged the government's reputation, and led to the arrest of more than a dozen legislators.
To label only one side "terrorist" would therefore be seen as adopting the U.S. strategy that favors violence over negotiation as a means of ending the conflict – which is why other governments in the region have refused to do so. For his part, Chavez has stated clearly that he does not support the FARC’s armed struggle or kidnappings, and has offered to try to convince its leadership to put down their arms and pursue a peaceful, electoral route to political change.
The Bush Administration's policy of "no negotiations with terrorists," with the label selectively applied, makes no more sense in this hemisphere than in other parts of the world. It is also a blow to the families of three U.S. military contractors who are currently held by the FARC. The release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez is progress, and could be a first step toward negotiating an end to this prolonged war. Washington should join with the rest of the hemisphere – including Venezuela – and support a negotiated solution.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. (www.cepr.net).
Response to Comments From Author Mark Weisbrot, 9:30 a.m., January 17, 2008
Let me respond to some of the comments below. First, as a few alert readers pointed out, most of these comments do not apply to anything that I wrote, since I did not say anything at all about the FARC, except that they have engaged in actions which can be considered terrorist. And anyone who reads my op-ed carefully will see, I simply argued that most of the governments of this hemisphere – other than the U.S., Canada, and Colombia – who have refused Washington's requests to officially label the FARC as terrorist, have a valid reason not to do so. They believe it would be counter-productive and do not want to be identified with the U.S. strategy of favoring a military solution. It has nothing to do with whether the FARC commits terrorist acts, which all would agree is true.
In fact, even President Uribe has said that he is willing to drop the label "terrorist" for the FARC "the moment that peace advances."
Several readers cited the Washington Post's January 16 editorial board piece, "Ally to Kidnappers."
The Post's claim that "Mr. Chávez was endorsing groups dedicated to violence and other criminal behavior in a neighboring Latin American democracy, and associating his agenda with theirs," is clearly misleading, as evidenced by his widely reported (but omitted in the editorial) statements against the FARC's armed struggle and kidnappings, etc. The Post also claims that "even governments allied with Mr. Chávez, such as those of Argentina and Ecuador, recoiled from his appeal," but there were no criticisms of him from these governments, and in fact President Rafael Correa of Ecuador praised Chavez for his role in negotiating the hostage release. In short, this editorial is just one of many diatribes against Venezuela from an editorial board that has become one of the most extremist voices, among U.S. newspapers, of hostility towards left-of-center, democratic governments in Latin America.
Finally, with regard to the aborted hostage release mission on New Year’s weekend, Chavez and others claimed that it failed because of Colombian military operations in the area. Uribe claimed that the guerillas were simply lying and had no intention to release anyone, because the FARC did not have the boy. According to one of the released hostages, former Colombian Congresswoman Consuelo Gonzales,
"'On December 21, we began to walk toward the location where they were going to free us and we walked almost 20 days. During that time, we were forced to run several times because the soldiers were very close,' she said. Gonzalez also lamented that on the day that Alvaro Uribe set as a deadline for the release, the Colombian armed forces launched the worst attack on the zone where they were located. 'On the 31st, we realized that there was going to be a very big mobilization and, in the moment that we were ready to be released, there was a huge bombardment and we had to relocate quickly to another place.'"
I could not find any reference to this statement by Gonzalez in the U.S. press.
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