Nov 24

Today Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, published a pugnacious letter in The Hill, a daily newspaper targeted at the U.S. Congress. Engel defends the October 30 defense cooperation agreement (DCA) that gives U.S. military personnel access to seven bases in Colombian territory.

Colombia is an important friend and ally, and the U.S.-Colombia DCA strengthens the already excellent partnership between our countries. In spite of reports to the contrary, this bilateral agreement simply regularizes existing security cooperation between the United States and Colombia. It envisions no permanent U.S. bases or increased military deployments.

Rep. Engel criticizes Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for using the DCA as a pretext to launch a campaign of warlike rhetoric and provocations that is increasing the risk of cross-border hostilities.

But Chávez is not the only one criticizing the DCA; he is just the loudest. Just last week the presidents of Brazil and Argentina issued a joint statement expressing strong displeasure with the U.S.-Colombian base access deal.

Both Presidents expressed their concern for the presence in the region of a military base of an extra-regional power, a situation that is incompatible with the principles of respect, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the region’s states.

The U.S. government has published a very brief fact sheet (PDF) about the bases, and Ambassador William Brownfield has given interviews to Colombian media assuring other nations that they need not view the U.S. presence as a threat. This, unsurprisingly, has not been enough to reassure them.

When we look beyond the Venezuelan bluster, we see that this bilateral, vaguely worded, until recently very secretive agreement is still doing damage to U.S. relations with nearly all of Latin America. It is undermining trust with governments who should be partners, and spreading a view that the Obama administration, despite the hope of early 2009, is turning out to be “more of the same.”

Washington needs to halt this damage. A common proposal from the region is simply to abrogate the agreement, as center-left politicians like Polo Democrático candidate Gustavo Petro have proposed. However, the situation with Venezuela has made this politically inviable because of the perception that a U.S. pullout would be viewed as a capitulation to Chávez.

Instead, the United States must adopt a new posture of humility, clarity and transparency. The Obama administration should start by recognizing that the base-access deal was presented through a process that was deeply flawed. It should finish by being clearer on three issues that the CDA’s vague text, and the administration’s own actions, leave insufficiently defined.

1. The United States must be clearer with Colombia’s neighbors that its presence in Colombia will never support any operations beyond Colombian soil. The CDA says the following on this topic:

Article III, Section 4: The Parties shall comply with their obligations under this Agreement in a manner consistent with the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity of States, and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other States.

In his November 1 interview with El Tiempo, Amb. Brownfield repeatedly referenced this section, “like a mantra,” to assure that “this is not an agreement with extraterritorial impact.” However, in a region still jolted by the March 2008 cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed a FARC commander, this language is not clear enough. The agreement’s negotiators chose not to use language as unequivocal as “U.S. personnel in Colombia will not support operations that occur in the territory of third countries without those countries’ explicit permission.”

Amb. Brownfield’s message was severely undercut by the Colombian media’s almost simultaneous discovery of a May 2009 U.S. Air Force presentation to the U.S. Congress (PDF), which contends that the presence in Colombia would provide “a unique opportunity for full spectrum operations in a critical sub region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-US governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters.” (Our emphasis.)

As a result, last week’s joint statement from the presidents of Brazil and Argentina continues to demand clearer assurances.

[Both Presidents] highlighted the importance that military cooperation agreements signed by countries in the region, especially those that imply some degree of military presence of extra-regional nations in South America, must be accompanied by formal guarantees that such accords will not be utilized against the sovereignty, territorial integrity, security and stability of South American countries.

It is essential that the U.S. government accede to this request by making these assurances explicitly, through diplomatic notes or similar means.

2. The United States must be clearer about the commitment that this agreement implies for Colombia’s national defense. U.S. foreign aid law restricts U.S. assistance to Colombia to “a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking and organizations designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations and successor organizations, and to take actions to protect human health and welfare in emergency circumstances.”

The CDA, however, would support a far broader, vaguer mission. Article III, Section 1 allows U.S. forces to support activities “to address common threats to peace, stability, freedom, and democracy.”

This language may not be a mutual defense guarantee, but it sounds a lot like one. It is not as explicit as the North Atlantic Treaty, in which “an armed attack against one or more … shall be considered an attack against them all.” Still, the CDA could be construed as implying that hostilities from a nation viewed as a “common threat” would be met with a U.S. military response.

Has Colombia, to the exclusion of other South American countries, just been brought under the U.S. defense umbrella, like South Korea? The answer is unclear. But while it remains unclear, it will generate distrust and tensions throughout South America, especially larger countries like Brazil.

3. The United States must be clearer about its desire to see the Colombia-Venezuela tensions resolved peacefully. An armed confrontation is in nobody’s interest. Because its handling of the CDA is a proximate cause of the current Andean blowup, the United States has a responsibility to help cool things down. An impression that the Obama administration expects to stand aside – or worse, that it is aggressively taking Colombia’s side – will only inflame the situation further.

Obviously, the United States has taken Colombia’s side. This makes it impossible for the Obama administration to play the role of a disinterested “honest broker” in resolving tensions. But just as pro-Israel U.S. governments repeatedly seek to mediate peace in the middle east, the U.S. government should be actively supporting efforts to build dialogue, and multilateral confidence-building processes led by regional moderates. These include the UNASUR talks taking place later this week. These offer at least modest hope of reducing tensions, and thus deserve Washington’s full support.

Nov 23

In a much-commented column in Sunday’s edition of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, Enrique Santos, the paper’s editor, argues that the United States is “abandoning” Colombia amid worsening tensions with Venezuela.

If the mute behavior of a bloc [UNASUR] to which Colombia belongs is surprising in the face of President Chávez’s wild insults, warlike threats and provocative acts, the attitude of our great ally to the north is nothing less than outrageous. Washington not only seeks to distance itself, but has sought to place both governments’ conduct on a sort of equal footing.

Citing a recent column by far-right U.S. commentator Patrick Buchanan, the normally measured Santos calls the Obama administration’s attitude an example of “the American way of abandonment.”

This petulant argument reveals a remarkable degree of insecurity among Colombia’s “political class.” It also ignores the following:

  • An official U.S. government declaration taking Colombia’s side in its dispute with Venezuela would be nothing short of a major political gift to Hugo Chávez. It would become the main theme of the Venezuelan president’s speeches for the next week, and it would make the situation even more volatile. The U.S. government would do well to remain silent on the subject and work – preferably with neighbors like Brazil – to ease tensions.
  • The United States has already cast its lot with Colombia in a way that speaks louder than dozens of official statements from Washington. Only 3 1/2 weeks ago, the U.S. and Colombian governments signed a “defense cooperation agreement” that, in its vaguely worded language, can easily be interpreted as a commitment to help Colombia defend itself against “common threats.” (Santos does have a point, however, when he reminds readers that this agreement, and both governments’ poor handling of it, are what triggered the current tensions in the first place.)
  • If the U.S. government’s embrace of Álvaro Uribe’s administration has loosened since George W. Bush left office, perhaps the explanation lies more clearly with para-politics, “false positives,” DAS wiretaps, “Agro Ingreso Seguro,” Uribe’s re-election drive, and other troubling and often unaddressed scandals and trends.

Let’s hope elite Colombian opinion recalls all three of these points before jumping to wild conclusions about the nature of the bilateral friendship. This isn’t high school, it is foreign policy toward an increasingly unstable region. The United States is still sitting at Colombia’s lunch table, but it is right not to take part in this particular food fight.

Nov 11

“Let’s prepare for war and help the people prepare themselves for war, because it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

These words, uttered Sunday before a military audience, are the strongest yet from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez about his government’s increasingly tense relationship with Colombia. They follow a series of episodes that has everyone wondering whether the two countries are on the brink of hostilities:

  • July: Media reports revealed that the United States is negotiating to use seven Colombian military bases. An accord was signed October 30. Days later, Colombian media pointed to a U.S. Air Force justification document (PDF) sent to the U.S. Congress earlier in the year. The document bills the presence in Colombia as a means to help the United States confront threats in the region from, among other things, “anti-U.S. governments.”
  • October 2: Eleven Colombian men were kidnapped while playing soccer in Táchira state, on the Venezuelan side of the border; their bodies were later found at several sites in Venezuela. Chávez insists that the murdered men were Colombian paramilitaries.
  • October 24: Bodies of four more men were found on both sides of the border, in Arauca department and Apure state.
  • October 28: Chávez announced that, earlier in the month, Venezuela arrested two Colombian intelligence service (DAS) agents in its territory. Colombia acknowledged that one is a DAS agent but claimed he fell into a trap after being invited to a party on the Venezuelan side of the border.
  • October 30: Venezuela announced the arrest of eight alleged Colombian paramilitaries in its territory.
  • November 2: Gunmen killed two Venezuelan National Guardsmen. Colombia expelled a Venezuelan National Guardsman from its territory. Chávez closed two key border bridges, choking trade.
  • November 4: Chávez announced the deployment of 15,000 troops to the two countries’ common (1,375-mile) border.

Such tensions, and rhetoric like Chávez’s latest broadsides, are very rare in Latin America, where countries almost never fight each other. Is this the runup to all-out war between one of the United States’ closest allies in the hemisphere and one of its main sources of imported oil?

Probably not. Here’s why:

1. Both countries’ postures are defensive. Chávez has phrased even his most bellicose rhetoric in terms of defending Venezuela from presumed U.S. aggression – or perhaps combined U.S.-Colombian aggression. This has also been the pretext for Caracas’ massive arms purchases, mostly from Russia, during the past five years.

The Colombian government has taken a strong defensive step of its own: inviting the U.S. military to share facilities on Colombian soil. While neither the U.S. nor the Colombian government would portray it this way, the base agreement offers Colombia a de facto security guarantee. Like the U.S. presence in South Korea, stationing a small contingent in Colombia offers a sort of “tripwire” against presumed Venezuelan aggression, to use the cold-war analogy.

Both sides are preparing to defend themselves from an attack by the other side – but neither appears to be planning an actual attack. Terms like “pre-emption” are not being used. Though each may be daring the other to make the first move, neither side is playing offense.

2. There is no definition of “victory.” It is hard to imagine a war scenario that either side can define as successful. Would Venezuela take over a few Colombian border towns? Would Colombia drop bombs on the presidential palace in Caracas? If so, then what? The scenarios themselves hardly make sense.

3. Both populations lack “war fever.” In neither Colombia nor Venezuela do we see people taking to the streets to call for war. Neither nation’s newspapers have been publishing editorials or columns demanding blood and sacrifice. There aren’t even any significant Facebook groups calling for a Colombo-Venezuelan conflict. To the contrary: Colombia’s population is exhausted by 45 years of internal conflict that shows no sign of letting up. And among the half of Venezuelans who support Hugo Chávez, it’s hard to imagine more than a minority supporting war with Colombia. (In fact, a poll released yesterday showed 80 percent opposing.) It’s very hard to make war if the people do not want it.

4. Much of this is about domestic politics. Both countries happen to be in a make-or-break election season. Venezuela since 2005 has had an overwhelmingly pro-government, rubber-stamp legislature, a result of the opposition’s oft-regretted decision to boycott the vote. But the next legislative elections are in December 2010 – and could be moved up – and Chávez, whose poll standing is sinking amid shortages and blackouts, has reason to worry about losing this legislative ally and facing a strong legal check on his power. In Colombia, which has a presidential election next May, two-term President Álvaro Uribe, who is popular but taking damage from corruption scandals, is on a quest to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third straight term. Both leaders have a strong incentive to rally support and to distract voters from current problems. Electorally, their hostile rhetoric and actions do the other a favor.

These factors all work against war between Colombia and Venezuela. But there’s still reason to worry.

Let’s return to point 2 for a moment. While there’s no plausible “victory” scenario, there remains the dangerous scenario of a limited military confrontation. One in which a small victory humiliates the other side before the international community moves in to silence the weapons. The possibility of such a brief and limited event – a several-day border battle, for example – is definitely greater, by several degrees, than it was a few months ago. Worse, neither government now has enough diplomatic representation in the other’s capital to keep small understandings from blowing out of proportion.

This outcome is less disastrous than outright war, but still very serious. It could involve significant loss of life. Civil society in both countries is organizing to make clear its rejection of any use of violence; it is essential that it do so with even greater urgency. Other key countries, such as the United States and Brazil, must also be prepared to intercede quickly to ease tensions should they escalate further.

The United States, for its part, should begin right now by making the clearest possible guarantee to the entire region that, despite what some Defense Department documents have indicated, the new military presence in Colombia will never be used to carry out operations in other countries’ territories.

Oct 08

In an interview with BBC Mundo published today, Colombian Vice President makes a novel argument. The main reason Álvaro Uribe should be re-elected to a third term, Santos says, is because Colombia faces “generic” threats from outside its borders. Excerpt:

BBC: “And you, as vice-president of Colombia. Are you in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election?”

Vice-President Francisco Santos: “Look, I am in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election, given the situation of the continent. A very complex situation in which the threat to Colombia has become ‘trans-border.’ The threat to Colombia is outside its borders. There is an urgent need to continue and put an end to criminal and terrorist organizations. I believe we are in a moment in which it is needed simply to keep pressuring. And I don’t believe Colombia should now be experimenting, making a change and having learning processes (…). A third term for the president would not affect democracy. Those who say it would do not believe in democracy (…).”

BBC: “You say that the threat to Colombia comes from outside its borders. What are you referring to?”

Santos: “The Colombian problem today has some connotations that generate complexities that you know well, you have seen them and reported on them. I don’t want to be specific in this sense so as not to generate diplomatic complications, but it is a reality that the world recognizes and that, for Colombia, brings about some political and, above all, diplomatic challenges to which it is urgent to begin to attend.”

BBC: “Might this concrete case [this week's Colombian Defense Ministry allegation that the FARC has encampments inside Ecuador] be what is being referred to when you spoke of trans-border threats against Colombia?”

Santos: “Essentially, no.”

BBC: “Then, what were you talking about concretely?”

Santos: “I’ll repeat. I prefer to leave that in generic terms, which is the best way to manage an issue as complicated as that (…), which is ever more clear about, that represents a threat to the continent, but for Colombia represents a challenge that is, above all, diplomatic (…).”

BBC: “You give the impression that you are making an indefinite accusation, like someone who throws a stone then conceals his hand, to say it flatly.”

Santos: “Well, this is what many do, and I believe that in diplomacy sometimes one has to talk to Juan so that Pedro understands. So I think it is important in that sense. But I believe that you as journalists who cover the world and reality, you know how things are.”

BBC: “You’re not willing to be more concrete.”

Santos: “No, no.”

Jan 06

In 1992, Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez sought to capitalize on a period of political and economic crisis with an attempted military coup.

Most of the U.S. discussion of Venezuela centers on Hugo Chávez’s highest-profile actions. His rhetorical bluster. His efforts to get himself re-elected indefinitely. His consolidation of executive power. His relationships with Russia and Iran.

Are these concerns well-placed? Several issues that Chávez’s government is not attending to – or is addressing poorly – are perhaps even more worrisome for Venezuela’s stability, as well as the region’s security.

  • Public security. Venezuela’s crime rates have worsened to some of the worst levels in Latin America, and by extension the world. The December 3 Christian Science Monitor reported, “Since president Chávez was elected in 1998, the homicide rate in the capital has more than doubled from 63 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants to 130 today. The country has experienced a parallel spike: from 20 to 48. That compares with a homicide rate in the US of 5.6.” Venezuela’s murder rate has exceeded Colombia’s since 2004. According to official data, meanwhile, the number of kidnappings increased from 44 in 1999 to 382 in 2007. Most are in states that border Colombia.
  • Narco and organized crime. Though Venezuela says it has destroyed 230 clandestine airstrips last year and increased seizures 60 percent since 2005, a huge amount of Colombian cocaine is being transshipped through Venezuelan national territory. Even if one disputes the U.S. government’s claims that as much as one-third of Andean cocaine passes through Venezuela, even a lower figure like 20 or 25 percent should be cause for great worry about the presence and power of wealthy organized-crime syndicates. While drug-related violence has not reached northern-Mexico levels, Venezuela is now seeing troubling incidents like the January 2008 gangland-style murder of Wilber Varela (alias “Jabón”), one of Colombia’s top narcotraffickers, in the resort town of Mérida.
  • Insecure borders. Several journalistic accounts over the past year have detailed the ease which which Colombian armed groups, particularly guerrillas, operate on Venezuela’s side of the two countries’ common border. Debate continues about whether the presence of groups like the FARC owes to (1) the difficulty of policing the borderlands, (2) corruption in the security forces, or (3) active help from President Chávez. Whatever the reason, the armed-group activity is a major factor of insecurity that the Venezuelan government is not sufficiently addressing.
  • Civil-military relations. Speculation about discontent within the Venezuelan armed forces increased in 2007 and 2008 when President Chávez’s longtime defense minister, Gen. Raúl Baduel, moved to the opposition, and when officers bristled at a requirement that they salute with the words “fatherland, Socialism or death.” In the middle of last year, AP reported that one-seventh of Venezuela’s officer corps had either requested early retirement or had been relieved of formal duties as a result of their dissent. Relations with the military were further complicated by an April 2008 decree creating a “National Reserve” outside the chain of command, reporting directly to the president.
  • Chaotic politics. In recent years, the only constant in Venezuelan politics has been the President himself. At all other levels, in both the government and the opposition, shakeups and realignments have been common and frequent. Neither state institutions nor political parties have been able to consolidate themselves. Ramón Carrizales is Chávez’s sixth vice-president since the 1999 constitution created the office. The President carried out far-reaching cabinet shakeups in each of the last two Januaries. And Venezuela’s constellation of political parties – both pro-government and opposition – is gigantic, complex and constantly shifting. (See Wikipedia’s enormous list of active Venezuelan political parties.) This ever-shifting, uncertain leadership situation is cause for concern about whether Venezuela’s institutions are able to carry out their assigned roles, especially in a crisis.
  • Inflation. “Inflation is running at 36% in the last 12 months, the highest in Latin America,” the BBC noted in November. The exchange rate of Venezuela’s bolívar is fixed at about 2,150 (2.15 “bolívares fuertes“) to the dollar. On the black market, however, a dollar routinely goes for much more.
  • Oil. Venezuela now gets 93 percent of its total export revenue from oil, making it the absolute cornerstone of the country’s economy. An October Washington Post story included a dire prediction from a Washington-based consulting firm, PFC Energy: “oil must be at least $94 a barrel to ensure Venezuela’s macroeconomic stability this year and generate enough money to pay for imports.” In December, though, a barrel of Venezuelan crude sold for an average of $32.66. While OPEC cutbacks and the Gaza fighting appear to be reversing the slide, Venezuela’s economy is undoubtedly hitting a rough patch along with the rest of the world, as evidenced by yesterday’s cancellation of CITGO’s program offering cheap heating oil to poor U.S. families.

A steep decline in oil prices in 1986 sent Venezuela’s economy into a severe tailspin. A 1989 attempt by President Carlos Andrés Pérez to implement neoliberal economic “shock treatment” policies triggered days of intense rioting in Caracas. The official death toll of the so-called Caracazo was 276, but is widely believed to have been several times higher. Within three years, Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez carried out a coup attempt that sought to capitalize on popular anger at the continued decline in living standards.

A replay of anything like the Caracazo is an outcome to be avoided. But the list of concerns laid out here calls seriously into question whether the Chávez government would be able to manage a period of severe economic hardship and instability, especially after several years of rapidly rising expectations among the poorest Venezuelans. A breakdown in Venezuela – or even just a period of social disorder – is not in anyone’s interest, not even those of Hugo Chávez’s most implacable opponents. And it would of course have dire consequences for the entire Andean region.

For the United States, the conclusion to draw from this is plain. Instead of putting all the focus on Chávez’s outbursts, Ahmadinejad’s visits, or ambassadorial expulsions, the next administration had also better be prepared to help Venezuela. And to do so at a moment’s notice.

Oct 24

Interesting to see that the attack ad that the McCain campaign released today includes an image of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The ad picks up on Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s speculation over the weekend that rogue foreign leaders would seek to “test” an Obama administration by generating an early crisis.

The ad plays Biden’s words over a montage of dangerous-looking foreign threats. We see footage of masked Islamic militiamen, warships, tanks, and fist-waving crowds.

They are interspersed with only two images of menacing foreign leaders: Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hugo Chávez.

Jun 09
Chávez upbraiding the FARC on Venezuelan TV yesterday.

“Uribe has made a winning bet,” the Colombian newsmagazine Semana wrote last August, days after Colombian President Álvaro Uribe gave Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez the green light to mediate hostage-for-prisoner-exchange talks with the FARC guerrillas.

He delegates to Chávez the biggest headache of his second term [the hostage crisis]. If things go well for Chávez, the Colombian government will get credit for having sought the right facilitator. If they go poorly, the government doesn’t lose because it will confirm its position that the FARC are the real obstacle to an exchange.

Perhaps President Uribe truly expected that the FARC’s excruciatingly slow, stubborn approach to negotiations would frustrate even Hugo Chávez, thus strengthening his government’s harder line on talks (”If even Hugo Chávez can’t talk to them…”).

If so, it has certainly taken a long time for Chávez to show any signs of frustration. But he certainly did on Sunday. More than five weeks after publicly announcing that he would be playing a more active role in mediating hostage-for-prisoner talks with the FARC, Chávez had this to say yesterday on his weekly television address.

I believe that the time has come for the FARC to release all the people it has up in the mountains unconditionally. It would be a great humanitarian gesture. … Guerrilla wars have become history in Latin America. … This far along in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of step, and that has to be said to the FARC. … The FARC should know this: you have become an excuse, a justification for the Empire to threaten all of us. You are the perfect excuse.

These are not the words of a facilitator who believes that his efforts are bearing fruit. For a variety of reasons – chief among them the flap over the emails on Raúl Reyes’ computers – Hugo Chávez’s mediating role, for now at least, is diminished.

This is not good news, because Chávez was one of the leading candidates in the search for an interlocutor who could help win freedom for the guerrillas’ hostages. And now, because of evidence on the recovered computers allegedly indicating that they were too close to the FARC, many of the most frequently mentioned possible mediators – Álvaro Leyva, Carlos Lozano, Piedad Córdoba and others – are facing the preliminary phase of a criminal investigation.

With targeted efforts against top guerrilla leaders and generous treatment for rank-and-file deserters, the Colombian government is effectively closing off the FARC’s military options. At the same time, though, it is closing off the guerrillas’ options for a political solution as well.

Would-be facilitators are being warned off. The paramilitary leaders’ mass extradition sent a message to guerrilla leaders that the “Justice and Peace” law will not protect them if they desert. A (probably growing) faction in the Uribe government is clearly convinced that a military victory is at hand – that the war is in the home stretch. They contend that any negotiation now would break the momentum, giving the guerrillas an undeserved pause and a chance to negotiate more than just surrender terms.

For this faction, anyone promoting negotiations – even to free the hostages – is simply in the way. And the hostages – seven civilians, thirty-three military and police, and untold hundreds held for ransom – are as far as ever from freedom.

Continue reading »

May 11

In a few days, Interpol will likely certify the authenticity of guerrilla communications from computer drives and other media that the Colombian military recovered at the site where, on March 1, they killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes. In advance of this announcement, the Colombian government appears to be rolling out new information by spoon-feeding leaks to selected media outlets.

Major new leaks appeared in the May 1 Miami Herald and on page 1 of Friday’s Wall Street Journal. The Journal piece made such a splash that it appears to have driven up the price of oil by more than $2 a barrel, as traders worried that new indications of possible Venezuelan aid to the FARC might cause the United States to add Venezuela to its list of terrorist-sponsoring states.

As before, the documents in question are communications between guerrilla leaders. Several offer accounts of meetings with officials of the Venezuelan government, some of them high-ranking. No documents or writings from the Venezuelans themselves appear; the FARC communications only reflect the guerrillas’ version of events.

The documents do hint that these Venezuelan officials may have been committing – or at least offering to commit – some very improper acts. In chronological order:

  • “A difficult guy”: Miami Herald: “The e-mails also suggest that as far back as 2005, the rebels attempted to win favors from Chávez, a man they characterized as ‘a difficult guy’ in charge of a country ‘with important reserves, useful for our purposes.’”

This seems to confirm that while the FARC had contacts with the Chávez government, they were not close – at least at the highest levels – until 2007.

By 2005, it was known that some Venezuelan arms were ending up in FARC hands and that local Venezuelan officials – probably more out of corruption than solidarity – were selling them weapons and allowing guerrillas to cross into Venezuela. Similar phenomena have been alleged in the remote border zones that Colombia shares with several of its neighbors. It is impossible to establish whether the permissive environment the guerrillas enjoyed in the border zone was the result of official Chávez government policy.

There appear to have been some closer contacts with the Chávez government’s top levels in early 2007, after Chávez’s December 2006 re-election, as he began a new term with a noticeably more radical program than before. These became far closer, of course, after August 2007, when Colombian President Álvaro Uribe “authorized” Chávez to serve as a facilitator of dialogues with the FARC.

  • Presence in Venezuela: WSJ: “[A]ccording to one 2005 email, from Jorge Briceño (known as Mono Jojoy, a top FARC military commander), the rebels at that time had some 370 guerrillas and urban sympathizers operating inside Venezuela.”

The figure of 370 FARC guerrillas and civilian sympathizers in Venezuela in 2005 tells us little about official Venezuelan support at the time. The guerrillas may have had similar numbers in Ecuador (which at the time had no leftist government), and perhaps smaller but significant numbers in Peru, Brazil and Panama.

  • Guerrilla warfare training: Miami Herald: “In an e-mail dated Apr. 18, 2005, ‘Iván’ writes to ‘Raúl’ that somebody he calls ‘Tino,’ who has a top responsibility for handling the Popular Defense Units — the armed civilian militias that Chávez created to defend his Bolivarian revolution — is interested in getting his troop leaders trained in guerrilla warfare with the rebels.”

This is genuinely troubling. Again, though, it is impossible to determine whether Chávez or any other top leaders were seeking this assistance, whether “Tino” was acting on his own, or even whether the guerrillas’ account of the discussion with “Tino” – whoever he is – is accurate.

  • Loan request: Miami Herald: “The Herald also has seen one e-mail dated January 2007 in which a FARC leader named Jorge Briceño, also known as ‘Mono Jojoy,’ writes to the Secretariat that he proposes to ask Chávez for a loan of $250 million, ‘to be repaid when we take power.’”WSJ: “In one document dated January 2007, one top FARC commander speaks of a ‘loan’ for $250 million to buy arms which the FARC will pay back once it has reached power. ‘Don’t think of it as a loan, think of it as solidarity,’ says Mr. [Ramón] Rodríguez Chacin, the interior minister, in another document.”

It hardly stretches the imagination that the FARC asked Venezuela for money, perhaps on repeated occasions. We still have seen no indication that the Venezuelans said “yes.”

On the other hand, Rodríguez Chacín’s alleged comment would indicate that, at best, the Venezuelans had not said “no.” (It was Rodríguez Chacín who, while helping retrieve released FARC hostages Consuelo González and Clara Rojas in January, told one of the FARC captors on camera, “We are following your struggle. Maintain this spirit, maintain your strength and count on us. … Take care, comrades.”)

  • “Bazookas”: WSJ: “In another email dated early 2007, FARC commander Iván Márquez describes meetings with the Venezuelan military’s intelligence chief, Gen. Hugo Carvajal, and another Venezuelan officer to talk about ‘finances, arms and border policy.’ Mr. Márquez relates that the Venezuelans will provide the guerrillas some 20 ‘very powerful bazookas,’ which Colombian military officials believe is a reference to rocket-propelled grenade launchers.”
  • Arms shipments: WSJ: “At the meeting with Gen. Carvajal, another Venezuelan general is described as offering the port of Maracaibo to facilitate arms shipments to the guerrillas. The general suggests piggybacking on shipments from Russia — from which Venezuela itself is buying everything from Kalashnikovs to jet fighters — to ‘include some containers destined to the FARC’ with various arms for the guerrillas’ own use.”

Continue reading »

Apr 01

Íngrid Betancourt is believed to have been seen recently in El Capricho, Guaviare.

On March 8, just after tensions with Colombia began to cool down a bit, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called on Colombia’s FARC guerrillas to release hostage Íngrid Betancourt unilaterally.

“From here I send a request to Manuel Marulanda. Manuel Marulanda, send us Ingrid. Send us Ingrid. On this International Women’s Day, I expressly ask you to do it.”

Yesterday, Chávez received his reply: a terse “no.”

“[After the March 1 raid that killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes,] there would now be no meeting with the French delegation to explore the liberation of Ingrid. They had killed Raúl Reyes, some of his guerrillas and some Mexican students visiting the site. As Comandante Manuel [Marulanda] said: ‘they killed Raúl, and they seriously wounded the prisoner exchange and peace.’”

Those words come from a statement published yesterday by FARC Secretariat member Iván Márquez. As the FARC member who traveled to Caracas in November for a meeting with President Chávez, and as the leader whose geographic location is believed to be closest to Venezuela, Márquez is the closest thing the FARC has to a spokesperson following the death of Raúl Reyes.

Márquez’s statement comes amid ever more urgent rumors that Íngrid Betancourt is in her final days. A local priest says that Betancourt, suffering from hepatitis B and leishmaniasis, was taken in February or early March to a health clinic in El Capricho, in the remote municipality of El Retorno, Guviare, where medical personnel were apparently able to do little for her. A campesino reported seeing her in El Retorno on March 23 “with no desire to live.” The witness told a priest cited in The Guardian, “she looked forlorn and had broken down in tears when she tried to speak.”

Íngrid Betancourt’s situation is so urgent that the FARC can no longer consider her a “prize” for whose release they can expect to gain huge concessions. To the contrary: at this point, the FARC should regard their custody of Íngrid as a curse, a time bomb about to blow up in their midst.

If Íngrid Betancourt dies in FARC custody, it would be an act of international political suicide for President Chávez to renew or repeat his calls for the FARC to enjoy political recognition, belligerency status, and removal from the world’s terrorist lists. International public opinion largely rejected such calls in January; should Íngrid die in guerrilla custody, that rejection would be many times stronger if Chávez were to repeat them.

Right now, then, Hugo Chávez can play a determining role. He is the only outside interlocutor to whom the FARC appears to be in contact right now, following the death of Raúl Reyes. In her November letter to her mother, Íngrid Betancourt herself makes an emotional appeal for Chávez to continue working on her behalf.

President Chávez himself has asked the FARC, publicly and directly, to release Íngrid. The FARC have said “no.” President Chávez must refuse to take “no” for an answer.

With his words of support for the FARC’s political cause, Hugo Chávez has shown the guerrillas a degree of political solidarity that they have not received from a foreign head of state in decades. If Colombia’s interpretation of files on Raúl Reyes’s recovered computer is accurate, this solidarity may have gone still further.

It is urgent that President Chávez remind the FARC that solidarity is a two-way street. Íngrid Betancourt must be released now.

Mar 19

As noted before, CIP is not an active participant in the debate over the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. But in the past week the Bush administration has unearthed a “national security” justification for the FTA that can’t be allowed to stand.

“As your national security advisor in that region, I will tell you that it is very important that the free trade agreement be passed from a national security perspective,” the commander of U.S. Southern Command, Adm. James Stavridis, told the House Armed Services Committee last week. “And, I hear that not just from senior people in Colombia, but from my interlocutors in the region. They’re watching very closely to see what happens to a nation that stands with the United States for a decade or more.” The admiral echoed an argument that President Bush used in speeches on March 12 and yesterday.

The administration is employing this argument in a specious, misleading and cynical way. As currently formulated, it could become a pretext for a host of irresponsible and counter-productive policies in Latin America and the Caribbean.

To the extent that it has been thought through, this “national security” argument seems to be based on four main debating points. Each of these points makes little sense, though, when considered on its own.

1. The FTA will make Colombia more secure by increasing economic prosperity, which will weaken the FARC.

White House “fact sheet”: A free trade agreement with Colombia would bring increased economic opportunity to the people of Colombia through sustained economic growth, new employment opportunities, and increased investment.

Dan Fisk, director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council: The free trade agreement, in our view, is critical to helping Colombia address the continuing threats it faces. First and foremost is the threat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the FARC. It continues — the FARC continues its assault on Colombian democracy, and its assault against the Colombian people. … In fact, if there’s one argument, I think, that is paramount in this is that we know that the main recruitment ground for terrorists, for guerillas or drug traffickers is poverty. The best way to get out of poverty is to create more and more opportunities for Colombians. That’s what President Uribe and the Colombian government is trying to do. That’s what the Colombia free trade agreement will do.

Whether the FTA will create prosperity in Colombia can be endlessly debated between credible experts on both sides. There does seem to be a rough consensus on two points, though:

  • Increased access to U.S. markets would probably mean job growth for Colombia’s export-oriented manufacturing sector, which is mainly based around big cities like Medellín, Bogotá and Barranquilla. (There is less consensus, obviously, about whether these would be unionized jobs or even “good jobs at good wages.”)
  • In rural areas, export-oriented agribusiness (capital-intensive crops like African palm, timber, or rubber) would do well. But these crops produce very few jobs per acre.

Smaller-scale farmers, on the other hand, would be dealt a strong short-term blow. As has happened in Mexico since NAFTA, family farms, cooperatives and communities producing foodstuffs for local markets could find it impossible to compete with a flood of cheaper products coming from the United States.

Even if the rural situation somehow restructures itself in a decade or two, over the next few years the FTA will mean a severe shock for many of Colombia’s small-scale rural producers. Past experience with FTAs makes it reasonable to expect a sharp economic downturn in the remote, “unglobalized” rural areas.

In Colombia, the trouble is that these are the very areas where coca is grown and guerrillas are strong.

Dealing a blow to small-scale producers in places like Cauca, Nariño or Putumayo could damage the livelihoods of thousands of farmers who, as it is, are just getting by. It could add to the ranks of rural dwellers who see no other option but to plant coca. It could add to the population of young rural Colombians susceptible to recruitment by guerrillas or “emerging” paramilitary groups.

In the absence of a “Marshall Plan” for Colombia’s countryside – which is not forthcoming – the FTA could deal an economic shock to zones that, while sparsely populated, are of central importance to the effort to combat armed groups and the drug trade. Rather than making the Andes safer, the FTA could trigger a more immediate national-security threat.

2. Failure to pass the FTA in 2008 would be a victory for Venezuela.

Continue reading »

Mar 16

Here is an English translation of a column I co-write with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), suggesting some next steps for resolving both Colombia’s hostage crisis and the ongoing tensions with Venezuela. It appears in today’s edition of the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.

The Path to Peace in the Andes Is Through a Humanitarian Exchange

By Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and Adam Isacson, Center for International Policy

Published in El Tiempo (Colombia), March 16, 2008

Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela moved quickly back from the brink of war last week. While the saber-rattling has died down, tensions remain high. The South American neighbors may find that the best exit from this dilemma leads back through the way they came in: via the effort to win freedom for the FARC’s hostages.

Amid the threats and accusations of Venezuelan support for the guerrillas, the cruel fact remains that forty people – including [Delete: the] three Americans and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt – continue to languish in jungle camps with little hope of freedom.

President Álvaro Uribe’s abrupt cancellation of Hugo Chávez’s facilitating role triggered a tailspin in Colombian-Venezuelan relations. The two leaders began a war of words that has escalated for nearly four months now. In January, Chávez’s speeches began to include praise for the FARC, further inflaming Colombian public opinon.

Amid all of this, Chavez and Senator Piedad Cordoba managed to convince the guerrillas to release six of its hostages unilaterally. But forty more await. Many are ill and desperate to be reunited with their loved ones.

The prisoner-exchange talks are badly stuck. Not only because of the Colombia-Venezuela spat, but because there is nobody to talk to.

An interlocutor is desperately needed to get things moving, to make quiet conversations possible. Some go-between, acceptable to both sides, who can quickly relay messages and propose compromise solutions.

It may be that both sides have some flexibility on the venue for talks. There may be “wiggle room” on issues like the size of the “security zone,” the presence of international observers, or who gets to carry what kind of weapons where. Both sides, meanwhile, have yet to make clear exactly what needs to be discussed and decided in this zone, and what can be ironed out beforehand.

With no interlocutor, there is no way to have a quiet dialogue about these questions. Instead, proposals get made in public forums like press conferences, and responded to in kind, usually rejected out of hand.

Right now, the FARC are talking only to the Venezuelan government, to the near-total exclusion of other interlocutors. The Colombian government rejects Venezuelan participation on future talks, because of the growing enmity with Chávez and a belief that Chávez is not an honest broker.

The facilitator must be acceptable to the Colombian government. Yet Venezuela cannot be shut out either.

Continue reading »

Mar 11

Note: as this is being written, a developing story indicates that Joaquín Gómez, the newest member of the FARC Secretariat, may have been shot in combat and taken to Venezuela to receive medical care. If this is true, and if Gómez survives in Venezuelan custody, we had best brace ourselves for a major new crisis.

Update as of 8:00 PM EST: El Tiempo is now reporting that the wounded guerrilla is not Joaquín Gómez.

This blog has already expressed skepticism about the accuracy of some of the information culled from laptop computers found at the site where, on March 1, the Colombian military killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes. These messages are highly unlikely to be forgeries, but they do tell only a partial story, one that is filtered through the isolated guerrilla leadership’s understanding of events.

With that caveat in mind, there are some details in the documents that deserve to be pointed out, because they do not fit into the dominant narrative of Colombia’s conflict.

1. The Colombian security forces’ continued cooperation with new, “emerging” paramilitary units.

A January 25, 2008 note from FARC Secretariat member Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timoleón Jiménez,” to the rest of the Secretariat details increasing FARC ties to the organization of top former paramilitary leader Carlos Mario Jiménez, “Macaco.”

The contacts, or messages left, with Macaco’s people have been maintained in Bajo Cauca and Southern Bolívar [north-central Colombia]. Beyond the “tax” [presumably, funds from taxing the drug trade], they have brought some munitions. They have a war with those from Aguachica who are called “Black Eagles,” who in Vichada had a war with “Cuchillo” [Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, longtime paramilitary chieftain in Guaviare, Meta and Vichada departments] who, united with the army, annihilated them. In the area of Simití and in the urban centers of San Pablo and Santa Rosa [southern Bolívar department], the army has killed a few of them, but they maintain relations with the police and some military commanders. The paramilitaries’ bodyguards offer themselves for money to carry out logistical military activities, they are complete mercenaries.

They say that their national-level orientation is to negotiate with the FARC everything that has to do with narcotics. Now they appear in Catatumbo [a coca-producing region in northeastern Colombia, near Venezuela] proposing an official meeting with the FARC.

The FARC leader’s offhanded comments about military and police cooperation with “new” paramilitary groups in southern Bolívar and the eastern plains are troubling. If true, it would be ironic – even by Colombian standards – that Macaco could be working with both the FARC and the National Police (plus some military personnel) in southern Bolívar department.

Last August, Macaco was ejected from the prison cell block he was sharing with other paramilitary leaders, accused of continuing to plot killings and drug deals and threatened with losing his right to a reduced jail sentence under the “Justice and Peace” law. (However, for reasons I have not been able to clarify, Macaco was quietly returned to the Itagüí prison, south of Medellín, in late February.) If this communication is accurate, Macaco may still have been commanding people carrying out illegal acts as late as January of this year.

2. The absence of “NGO allies.”

For years, we have heard critics on Colombia’s right wing, including President Uribe himself, seeking to link the country’s non-governmental human rights defenders to the FARC. By criticizing military violations and initiating legal cases against abusive officers, the argument goes, human-rights activists have been serving the guerrilla cause by slandering the security forces and tying the hands of the most effective commanders. While these critics almost never have proof to cite, they even have a term to describe the NGOs’ service as the guerrillas’ legal arm: “Judicial Warfare.”

It is very much worth noting, then, that none of the documents that the Colombian security forces have released make any mention of FARC contacts with non-governmental human rights defenders. The guerrillas’ supposed “judicial warriors” are nowhere to be found. The NGOs’ absence speaks volumes – but it also confirms what they have always told us: that their relations with the FARC are either poor, very distant, or simply nonexistent.

Also notable is the FARC’s interest in, but apparent lack of knowledge about, Colombia’s main leftist political party, the Democratic Pole. Writes Marulanda on September 22:

I listened [on the radio] to commentaries about the debate carried out in the Polo, behind closed doors. I don’t know about its conclusions but we can imagine that when the mules fight the mule-driver loses, because in the name of unity all that there has been, and is to be, will be against the FARC.

3. Relations with Venezuela were not terribly close until last fall. When considered in chronological order, the guerrilla communications regarding Hugo Chávez and Venezuela appear to reveal a relationship that was cordial but distant until the fall of 2007. There were contacts, but these were irregular and not entirely trustful.

Continue reading »

Mar 05

I am headed to the airport shortly, for a trip to London where I will be participating in a panel discussion on Friday. Given all that is happening, this is an odd time to be leaving Washington – but this trip has been planned for a while, and it is only for a few days.

I will try to continue posting from the UK, but travel plans and Internet access may complicate that. I will be back in Washington on Monday.

In the meantime, consider these views, from the not-too-distant past, of the Uribe-Chávez relationship. How quickly things change.

1. From a June 29, 2006 missive by conservative syndicated columnist Robert Novak, entitled “Our Man in the Andes:”

President Alvaro Uribe returned from his recent overnight visit to Washington in undisclosed disagreement with President George W. Bush. The American president would like the newly re-elected Colombian leader to be “our man in the Andes,” publicly standing up against Venezuela’s leftist strongman President Hugo Chavez. That is not a role Uribe wants to play.

Bush was dissatisfied with Uribe’s noncommittal reaction in the Oval Office when the U.S. president said he was counting on him to lead the struggle against Chavez. But Uribe has his hands full in the 20th year of his country’s war against narco-guerillas. Nor does he want to exacerbate Colombia’s often-turbulent relationship with Venezuela, second only to the United States as a trading partner.

2. From President Uribe’s September 20, 2006 appearance on Neil Cavuto’s FOX News television program, shortly after Chávez gave his “sulfur” speech at the United Nations (discussed earlier on this blog):

Cavuto [in his first question]: “Do you think Hugo Chavez is a nut?”

Uribe: “Is a…?”

Cavuto: “A nut? Crazy?”

Uribe: “No. Ah, excuse me. You do not ask this question of a president who is the president of a sister nation of Venezuela. Colombia and Venezuela are sister nations. We have had a historic brotherhood. We have a common present and of course we need a joined future. Any expression I admit on Venezuela should be a friendly expression.”

Mar 05

It is not news that Latin American sensitivities are high about issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Regional condemnation of Colombia’s incursion into Ecuador Saturday, which killed FARC leader “Raúl Reyes,” has been nearly unanimous. The move has been criticized by Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and even by more conservative governments like those of Alán García in Peru and Felipe Calderón in Mexico.

This makes for an interesting contrast with the United States, where even the two “liberal” Democratic presidential candidates defended the Uribe government’s action.

  • Barack Obama: “[T]he Colombian government has every right to defend itself against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The recent targeted killing of a senior FARC leader must not be used as a pretense to ratchet up tensions or to threaten the stability of the region.”
  • Hillary Clinton: “The Colombian state has every right to defend itself against drug trafficking terrorist organizations that have kidnapped innocent civilians, including American citizens. … Rather than criticizing Colombia’s actions in combating terrorist groups in the border regions, Venezuela and Ecuador should work with their neighbor to ensure that their territories no longer serve as safe havens for terrorist groups.”

John McCain, reports CBS news, sees in this crisis a reason to bring back the super-hard-line “Just Say No” drug policies of twenty years ago.

“I want to reiterate our partnership and friendship with President [Alvaro] Uribe and the government of Colombia. … They are a vital ally. … I hope that tensions will be relaxed, President Chavez will remove those troops from the borders – as well as the Ecuadorians – and relations continue to improve between the two. … [The FARC] are a terrorist organization and one that I believe we must assist the Colombian government in repressing.”

For his part, President Bush’s three-minute statement on the crisis yesterday was partly a show of support for Colombia, partly a call for a diplomatic solution, and mostly a “commercial” for congressional ratification of the Colombia free-trade agreement.

President Uribe told me that one of the most important ways America can demonstrate its support for Colombia is by moving forward with a free trade agreement that we negotiated. … Our country’s message to President Uribe and the people of Colombia is that we stand with our democratic ally. My message to the United States Congress is that this trade agreement is more than a matter of smart economics, it is a matter of national security. If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region, and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere.

A State Department spokesman sent a more helpful message on Monday. After making clear that the U.S. government supports Colombia, Tom Casey called forcefully for diplomacy.

 ”[L]ook, I think right now our focus is on trying to encourage Colombia and Ecuador to work out diplomatically the concerns that have been raised about this military strike. Certainly, we expect that that’s how this is going to be resolved. And I don’t think anybody at this point ought to be talking about military action.”

This sentiment was echoed in a letter to the OAS (PDF), released Tuesday, which bore the signatures of fifteen members of the U.S. Congress. The message, calling for OAS leadership of a diplomatic solution, is the only Colombia-related letter in memory signed by both the hawkish Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) and the dovish Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts).
While this letter was signed by both parties’ senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere (Burton and Rep. Eliot Engel [D-New York]), the ranking Republican on the full Foreign Affairs Committee was absent. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) put out her own, more bellicose statement.

The courageous men and women of the Colombian National Police, its intelligence unit and the country’s security services have shattered the myth that FARC’s leadership is invincible. … Recent State Department reports cite deepening ties between the Chavez regime and Iran and Cuba, and an unwillingness by Chavez to prevent Venezuelan territory from being used as a safe haven by FARC. These reports are alarming and require the careful attention of our government and those of our neighbors. … Rather than rattle sabers, Colombia’s neighbors need to play a more constructive role in bringing about a durable peace and removing FARC’s foreign sanctuaries that have been exposed by this operation.

Mar 04

At this point in the ongoing Colombia-Ecuador-Venezuela crisis, a central issue requiring clarification is the nature of Venezuelan support for the FARC. Has Hugo Chávez’s government merely been engaging in political and hostage-exchange dialogues with the guerrillas, or has he begun providing them with material support?

The Colombian government, obviously, thinks that Caracas has begun to fund the FARC, and is saying so publicly for the first time. President Álvaro Uribe’s representatives have approached the International Criminal Court, the UN Security Council and the OAS with charges that President Chávez arranged to provide the FARC with money, perhaps $300 million. The Venezuelan support, they say, might have been in the form of oil or some other goods that would be sold, the profits laundered through front companies.

These charges are based on files found on laptop computers recovered at the site in Ecuador where the Colombian military killed top-ranking FARC leader Raúl Reyes early Saturday. The evidence, according to Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo, “not only implies closeness, but an armed alliance between the FARC and the Venezuelan government.”

But what do those files say about Venezuela financially supporting the FARC?

The files do make it appear that some sort of scheme was underway. But it is extraordinarily serious to charge that Venezuela has begun to finance the violent overthrow of a neighboring state. One had better be extra certain before making it; the world now knows that acting on faulty intelligence can have highly tragic results.

Several points need to be clarified:

  • Whether President Chávez or top Venezuelan officials approved of any payments. The intercepted communications talk of contacts with a Venezuelan “boss” who is code-named “Ángel.” He is apparently someone important, but is “Ángel” Hugo Chávez? The Colombian government thinks so, but the documents made available are far from clear.
  • Whether any payments were delivered. The last communication, from mid-February, indicates that they were not, that discussions about how to deliver the goods were ongoing with the code-named individuals.
  • How serious Venezuela was about this offer. We are reading the accounts of FARC leaders who are eager to make the deal happen. We do not have a sense of the real level of enthusiasm on the part of “Ángel” and the Venezuelans.
  • Why this would be a good deal for Venezuela. If Hugo Chávez’s goal is to spread leftist “Bolivarian” politics in Latin America and Colombia, why would he believe that the FARC would be the right vehicle? Why lavish $300 million on a force that is widely despised in Colombia, and which has seen its military capabilities reduced from a late-1990s peak? It simply doesn’t make sense.

Here are translations of relevant excerpts from 36 pages of FARC communications that Colombia’s main newspaper, El Tiempo, posted to its website today (PDF). Draw your own conclusions.

  • December 23, 2007 – from FARC Secretariat member Iván Márquez, who met publicly in Caracas with Chávez in November when Chávez was an official peace facilitator, to the rest of the Secretariat:

    For two days we met with Rodríguez [most likely Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín]. … With relation to the 300, which from now on we will call “dossier,” efforts are now going forward at the instructions of the boss to the cojo [slang term for a handicapped or feeble person, similar to "cripple"], which I will explain in a separate note. Let’s call the boss Ángel, and the cojo Ernesto. [El Tiempo claims that the "boss" is Chávez and the "cojo" is a former Venezuelan foreign minister serving as a go-between.]

  • January 14, 2008 – From someone identifying himself as “Jorge,” to the FARC Secretariat:

    The “dossier” is under collective, delicate, hard-headed, able and responsible direction.

    1. Who, where, when and how will we receive and guard the dollars?

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