Friday links Has it come to this?
Mar 162008

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.

The solution appears to lie in letting Venezuela back into the humanitarian-exchange talks, at least partially, as one of a group of facilitators.

The French government floated a proposal along these lines before the crisis flared up. Paris’s foreign ministry expressed agreement with Chávez’s proposal to form a group of mediators that would include Venezuela, France, Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador.

The Colombian government should consider reopening this proposal, even if it means once again giving Chávez some role to play. Perhaps it could be made more palatable by ensuring that the facilitating countries, which might include additional countries, assemble an international staff with sterling reputations for conflict resolution.

Venezuelan participation in such a contact group should include a pledge to the group’s other members that it will tone down its inflammatory rhetoric against the Uribe government, and assurances that it is not Venezuelan government policy to offer material support to the FARC.

We’re not suggesting this to reward or punish any country. This proposal is about the hostages and their families. We understand the political difficulties, but we must transcend politics if the hostages are ever to be freed.

This proposal offers a framework not just for defusing dangerous and unwanted tensions between Andean neighbors. It also holds out the best hope of reuniting more hostages with their families, sooner rather than later.

7 Responses to “El Tiempo column: The path to peace in the Andes”

  1. Fabio Says:

    I just read a report that authorities seized a large cash cache in Costa Rica reputedly belonging to the FARC, and investigations are underway concerning the dealings of some Costa Rican politicians with the FARC. This is the result of information on the Reyes laptop, and there is apparently more to come.

    It seems that, to an increasing degree, the Uribe government has the advantage and the vise is closing steadily and quickly on the FARC. It is conceivable that negotiating with them holds little tactical purpose, as awful as that may sound …

  2. Stuart Says:

    I saw that story too, Fabio. And what really angered me was the way this Berrocal guy also made it into a cause for accepting less Colombian refugees in Costa Rica, accusing them of being guerrillas in disguise. Even if a few guerrillas (or paramilitaries for that matter) do get refugee status, there are hundreds of thousands of innocent people who would be killed if they stayed in Colombia. Too many of them are already being denied refugee status by governments that are worried about ‘opening the floodgates’ (only 15 thousand of an estimated quarter million refugees in Ecuador have official refugee status), and now we have guys like this insinuating that accepting refugees is tantamount to letting some fifth pillar insurgency regroup in your country.

  3. Chris Says:

    Adam,

    What really bothers me with “negotiations” is that so much will be handed over to the FARC in exchange for the hostages, and then tomorrow the FARC will turn around and kidnap another 40 people.

    It’s like there’s no end in sight with these people…there is no reasoning with them. They act as they wish, and its dangerous because they believe that they are not accountable to anyone and their actions thus far has demonstrated that.

    Furthermore, just when you think progress is being made the FARC interjects something completely out there and all I see is everyone trying to satisfy whatever new demand they throw out there.

    At some point, you just have to accept the reality of the situation and make sacrifices, which is why I agree in Uribe’s approach. At the end of the day we can sit down and talk to the FARC, but do so in a position of strength…tell them that it’s over, they have to stop their criminal ways, some of them will be held accountable for their actions, but they can not continue as is and expect to get away with it without some repercussion. If the FARC wants to come back into society as a political movement/party, if Colombia as a whole then elects them (i.e. Chavez) so be it…but that’s the route they have to conform to.

    I know it really sucks for the hostages and the families… and if it was my family I know I would be right there calling for a appeasement of some sort for the release of the hostages; however, I am not and it doesn’t make sense to do so.

    Your line of reasoning has a lot of merit to it, but I just don’t think it’s a long-term solution to the problem. Long-term, someone has to be defeated or else they just keep coming back.

  4. Kyle Says:

    Adam,

    My main critique is that you say that there are 40 more people in the jungle waiting to be released. And while they may be released through a humanitarian agreement which is the focus of the article, well, there are over 3000 still in the jungles. A call for their released, through negotiation or not, would have been a nice touch.

    Chris, as far as your critiques go, you are technically correct. I think Adam and Jim had already taken what you said into account long ago. If the FARC release 40 prisoners, it is the job of the government to make sure they do not kidnap 40 more, which in theory would happen through what you speak of, whether it be defeating the FARC, trying to defeat the FARC or at bare minimum providing sufficient security. Thus, while what you say may be the case, the goal of the government should be to make sure that does not happen, through a plethora of policies, many security related. This also could include negotiations with the FARC.

    Really, this is a mini-paradigm of the overall picture in Colombia. If you think peace can only be reached through negotiations, you probably think that the acuerdo humanitario is the way; on the contrary, if you think that the FARC can be defeated militarily, you are probably for military rescue. Their converses are also true (perhaps more so.)

  5. Dan Says:

    Sadly, the FARC have no reason to trust a drug-running paramilitary like Uribe. I have yet to see one article or critic acknowledge that the last time they attempted to lay down their weapons and enter politics, they were slaughtered by the thousands. It may be easy for the rest of the world, and perhaps even Colombians, to forget, but I can’t imagine it is for the FARC. Of course, this is not meant as an endorsement of the FARC’s tactics, but merely an attempt to trace their maybe-not-so-crazy logic. The fact that some of the leaders of the March 6 anti-government/paramilitary rally have already been assassinated should demonstrate the government’s inability or disinterest in protecting the rights of any opposition, let alone the FARC.

  6. jcg Says:

    Dan: That’s how FARC and their supporters always presents things, but I think it’s important to remember everything else, including what they do not mention, because it would mean admitting their own mistakes and ambitions, showing that the situation was never as black and white as it is now convenient to communicate for propaganda purposes.

    FARC did not lay down their weapons, by and large, and did many things which complicated the situation, by continuing to extort, kidnap and pretend that they could have it both ways: create a legal political party *and* a growing clandestine army. That was a combination leading right up the path to hell, and many innocents suffered, in no small part because of FARC’s provocations and duality, not just the intolerance of the murderers and the indifference of the state.

    Because the “they” you mentioned weren’t even FARC themselves, for the most part, as the guerrillas were still recruiting and engaging in military activities, even before the bloodshed began in earnest but also during and after it.

    FARC’s leadership not only wants people to lament the UP’s fate, which is more than fair enough and is a necessary reminder of an unforgivable tragedy which cannot be erased, but also to justify its own behavior and the carrying out of an strategic plan which predated the massacre. That’s what FARC won’t tell you.

  7. Mauricio Cardenas Says:

    I agree with jcg’s comment. For Dan’s better understanding of the Colombian political scene, let me add that those guerrilla movements that did turn in their weapons and created legal political movements (M19, EPL) were (and still are) not just successful in the ballot box but spared their members the devastation that UP faced. They accepted the rules of the democratic game and did not keep a parallel armed force. This allowed M19 to significantly influence the shape of the 1991 constitution (they got more than 25% of the vote for constituent assembly delegates). Today they rule the major city (Bogota, which has elected two Polo leaders in a row) and one of the richest departments (Valle del Cauca). A significant number of congress, assembly, and local councilpeople have also been elected as Polo representatives, and some of them have played a critical role (think Petro) in exposing some of their fellow congresspeople’s ties with paramilitary groups (which explains why more than 30 have been indicted and more than 20 are already in prison). Bottom line, the FARC logic is not supported by anyone in the left of Colombia’s political spectrum. And doing so is paying off, as the public supports Polo candidates while rejecting the FARC’s ways (see the electoral and the public opinion survey data).

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