There is still no way to tell whether the intermediation of Hugo ChÃ¡vez and Colombian Senator Piedad CÃ³rdoba is going to bring freedom for the FARC’s hostages any closer. Nonetheless, the video of Sen. CÃ³rdoba’s visit to top FARC leader RaÃºl Reyes in Colombia’s jungles last week (viewable on YouTube) offers some clues about likely next steps.
Here is a translation of the part of the video where (with much prompting from Sen. CÃ³rdoba) Reyes talks about timing. It is a bit surprising how often the United States comes up in this segment – both the possible participation of U.S. congresspeople and consultations with relatives of the three U.S. citizen hostages. The importance of Washington’s possible role is further underlined by Sen. CÃ³rdoba’s presence here in Washington today.
RR: I want to say that the letters we have sent, particularly the one from Comandante-in-Chief Manuel Marulanda, illustrate very well our will to work for this [humanitarian exchange] accord. This will imply, surely, several meetings, it will mean much time, much patience and perseverance, persistence. We have all of these, as do you [addressing Hugo ChÃ¡vez] and the senator [CÃ³rdoba].
We want to talk to you, as we have expressed publicly and I repeat, that surely the conversation with Comandante Marulanda should happen at some time. But first, before that, we must have other previous conversations to clear the way and allow you to know the FARC and all of its proposals. That is why time will be needed, and we are willing.
PC: Would there be a preparatory meeting, Comandante Reyes?
RR: Yes, I think it is necessary to have one or two preparatory meetings. With members of the Secretariat or other cadres the commander-in-chief will assign for this mission.
PC: But could this preparatory meeting happen more quickly? It would be good if it could happen soon.
RR: We would like it as soon as possible, and we are willing to make it happen in the near future. However, it depends on many circumstances, but I think we can resolve that it not be too late. For example, a good date to meet with Comandante Chavez would be October 8. That is a historic date, the date that Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara was murdered in Bolivia.
At this opportunity I want to highlight the importance of a meeting with the Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, so that they can contribute to this objective of an exchange. I think that with the help of the international community, we can achieve the goal of a humanitarian exchange. And this could be the key, the entry point, the road, to move to the objectives of peace, to the political exit from the conflict. …
PC: A meeting between President ChÃ¡vez and relatives of the three detained U.S. citizens would be important. …
RR: I also find important that President ChÃ¡vez might meet with the relatives of the three U.S. citizens.
So what is going to happen next? Who knows. Maybe we’ll have a better clue after Sen. CÃ³rdoba’s visit.
For the near term, a big breakthrough would be the FARC agreeing to hold humanitarian-exchange talks in Venezuela. This would mean dropping their demand that these talks happen in a demilitarized zone in Colombia, which President Ãlvaro Uribe is determined not to grant.
Reyes has hinted that the FARC might be willing to go that route – as long as the actual, eventual prisoner-for-hostage handover happens in a demilitarized zone in Colombia. (Granting such a zone should be an easier concession for President Uribe to make. Unlike talks, it is unlikely that a hostage handover – a task that is largely logistical – would be prolonged for months.)
RaÃºl Reyes’ declarations hailing Hugo ChÃ¡vez’s insertion in the process have given reason to think that the first achievement would be a route beginning with agreements about the so-called humanitarian exchange, in direct dialogues in Venezuela. Then, a first tranche of freed hostages agreed upon in a “peace and security zone” [that is, demilitarized zone] in Colombia. However, between words and deeds lie big obstacles to overcome, beginning with each side’s “non-negotiable” positions: no to demilitarized zones, no freedom for those jailed for crimes against humanity, no return to arms for guerrillas who might be freed, says Uribe. No restrictions on those freed and the inclusion of Trinidad and Sonia [FARC members imprisoned in the United States] on the list of those to be exchanged, say the FARC.
The pace of politics in Venezuela does not allow President ChÃ¡vez to prolong the rounds of talks in Caracas in the manner of the eight rounds that have taken place in Havana between the ELN and the government. Analysts are betting on a first phase, within the next six months, which achieves freedom for Emmanuel [a baby born in captivity] and his mother Clara Rojas [Ingrid Betancourt's vice-presidential running mate in 2002], those who are sick or elderly, and a group of FARC cadres currently in government prisons. But even this scenario could be difficult because high-caliber political and military issues will keep being added to the humanitarian aspect, such as the FARC’s ambition to achieve a recognition of belligerent status. Or ChÃ¡vez’s proposal to go to the CaguÃ¡n with Sarkozy to see if anything happens, which could be a jump into the abyss if previous commitments are not defined.
… More likely in the short term is a Basic Accord with the ELN, which is nearly ready. And the ideal outcome – one must say it even though to dream can mean to be disappointed – is to hope that ChÃ¡vez’s mediation with Marulanda ends up becoming a down-payment toward peace. We’ll see.