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 Ãlvaro Uribe’s abrupt cancellation of Hugo ChÃ¡vez’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, ChÃ¡vez’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 ChÃ¡vez and a belief that ChÃ¡vez 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 ChÃ¡vez’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 ChÃ¡vez 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.