Reps. McGovern and Miller meet with relatives of FARC hostages.
Greetings from the 8:20 American flight from BogotÃ¡ to Miami. I have no scenic pictures to post from this trip; this time, I was accompanying three members of the U.S. Congress who paid a four-day visit to Colombia.
It was an unusual delegation, since each one of the representatives had a different agenda. Rep. George Miller (D-California), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, was investigating labor rights, meeting with a wide variety of union leaders and judicial officials. Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Massachusetts), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, was investigating U.S. corporationsâ€™ alleged support for paramilitary groups; his work took him to two Colombian jails to meet with top paramilitary leaders. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) was looking into the issue that has been dominating the headlines coming out of Colombia lately: the FARC hostage crisis and the search for a humanitarian accord.
As a result, the three members of Congress were almost never in the same place. I accompanied Jim McGovern, which gave an incredible opportunity to speak with just about everyone who has played a role in the humanitarian accord issue â€“ government officials, diplomats, NGOs, hostage relatives, analysts, journalists and â€œfacilitators.â€
Without revealing too much about what were a series of off-the-record conversations, I came away with the following conclusions about the present moment.
1. Hugo ChÃ¡vez, from hero to zero â€“ but still with a role to play. Only about 24 hours separated one of the Venezuelan presidentâ€™s proudest moments from one of his biggest missteps. Last Thursday, a triumphant ChÃ¡vez welcomed Colombian hostages Clara Rojas and Consuelo GonzÃ¡lez, whom the FARC had released into his custody, and basked in grateful words from the two women and their families.
On Friday, however, ChÃ¡vez angered many and confused most with a speech arguing that Colombiaâ€™s guerrilla groups are politically legitimate â€œarmiesâ€ and calling on the European Union to remove the FARC from its list of the worldâ€™s terrorist groups.
Why in the world would ChÃ¡vez have thought it wise to make this public plea, despite no recent change in the guerrillasâ€™ terrible records of violating international humanitarian law? Was there some sort of quid pro quo in which ChÃ¡vez promised the guerrillas that he would publicly advocate their political status in exchange for these or some future released hostages? (If so â€“ if the result was winning freedom people who have spent so many years in captivity â€“ then making an embarrassing speech would in fact be a small price to pay.) Or perhaps with Fridayâ€™s speech, was ChÃ¡vez signaling the formal end of his facilitation role by abandoning any claim to neutrality?
Whatever ChÃ¡vezâ€™s reasons, one thing is certain: his speech guaranteed that the FARC will not be taken off of anybodyâ€™s terrorist lists anytime soon. The European Union requires that all twenty-seven member countries unanimously agree to remove a group from its list of terrorist groups. If the Venezuelan president really wanted to help the FARC get off this list, he would have pursued quiet diplomacy. Instead, by making a public plea, ChÃ¡vez forced many of these member countries to respond publicly â€“ and of course, the answer was â€œno.â€ Now that they have been forced to go on record saying â€œnoâ€ once again, it will be that much harder to get them to reverse themselves and say â€œyesâ€ at some point in the future.
ChÃ¡vezâ€™s words of sympathy for the FARC, and those of some of his ministers, have made it extremely difficult to conceive of him ever facilitating or mediating a humanitarian accord to release all of the hostages. He is now almost irretrievably unacceptable to one of the two parties to the conflict â€“ the Colombian government â€“ which does not regard him to be an honest broker.
This does not mean that ChÃ¡vez should be fully marginalized from the hostage situation. He could play an important role in easing contacts and transmitting messages, or even convincing the guerrillas to make further goodwill gestures. He remains, by far, the FARCâ€™s preferred interlocutor. And of course, any effort to cut ChÃ¡vez completely out of future talks carries the risk of the Venezuelan leader playing a â€œspoilerâ€ role from the sidelines.
The plane is going to land soon. There is still some ground to cover here. Posts over the next day or two will discuss:
2. The U.S. Congress membersâ€™ offer to meet with FARC was generally well received.
3. Some sort of demilitarized zone seems inevitable, but the FARC will have to yield a lot.
4. All serious facilitation efforts should be allowed to go forward until one, or a combination, is acceptable to both parties. There are many possible actors to choose from.
5. Before any talks begin, discreet professionals must do a lot preparatory “staff work” out of the spotlight.