The business suits worn by FARC leaders in this 2000 picture were put to the torch shortly afterward, says Jan Egeland (fourth from left).
I spent the day at Beloit College in Wisconsin on Saturday, where I spoke on a panel whose star attraction was Jan Egeland, until recently the United Nations’ coordinator for humanitarian affairs.
Before that, from 2000 to 2002, the Norwegian diplomat was Kofi Annan’s special representative for Colombia’s ongoing peace talks with guerrilla groups. That position put Egeland in more frequent contact with FARC and ELN leaders – including “Manuel Marulanda,” “Mono Jojoy” and “Gabino” – than nearly any other foreign citizen has ever had.
He recalled the month-long tour of Europe that he organized for FARC and government negotiators at the beginning of 2000. Six guerrilla leaders, dressed in business suits instead of camouflage, went to Norway, Sweden, Spain, France and the Vatican. They were forced to share close quarters, and many meals, with Colombian business and government representatives. They hosted a parade of European politicians of all ideologies who explained to them that the Cold War was over and armed struggle made no sense.
As they went from city to city, the FARC leaders made public statements that sounded ever more moderate, conciliatory, and supportive of peace.
(Today, three of the six FARC leaders who took that trip to Europe are no longer with the organization. Two – FARC Secretariat members RaÃºl Reyes and IvÃ¡n RÃos – were killed in March. The third – SimÃ³n Trinidad – was captured in Ecuador and is now serving a sixty-year sentence in a U.S. prison.)
Then, Egeland explains, the six FARC negotiators returned to the demilitarized zone that was granted to them at the time, where they faced Marulanda, Jojoy and other senior guerrilla leaders.
“The people went back, I think, pretty converted. They met their old comrades there, and they were asked to put all their clothing, all their belongings from Europe in a pile, and theyâ€”it was torched to avoid tracking devices. And then they were made to retort [renounce] all the conciliatory statements of Scandinavia.”
That’s right – they made them burn their business suits. And then, to recant any moderate sentiments they had expressed.
I found that story to be discouragingly instructive as we watch France’s audacious, last-ditch efforts to save FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt hit a brick wall of guerrilla intransigence. The French government sent a planeload of doctors from Paris last week to provide emergency medical care to Betancourt, who is believed to be near death from hepatitis and other ailments after six years in captivity.
But that plane and its medical team are still in BogotÃ¡, as the FARC have not responded to entreaties to allow them to visit their hostage. (My guess is that the guerrillas – ever paranoid about military intelligence following any outside visitors to the site of captivity – will not grant this access.)
On Thursday, Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez, believed to be the outside actor with the most fluid communications with the FARC, lamented that he could do nothing to help Betancourt. As if in answer to the appeal we posted on Tuesday, ChÃ¡vez offered support to the French mission in a televised address, but added, “I can’t do anything more. I’ve lost all contact with the FARC.” If the FARC are not even talking to ChÃ¡vez, they may truly not be talking to anyone on the outside right now.
But they are, unfortunately, issuing communiquÃ©s like the one released Friday by Rodrigo Granda, the group’s so-called “foreign minister,” along with mid-level commander JesÃºs Santrich. Disregarding world opinion and Betancourt’s physical condition, the guerrilla leaders angrily refuse to release her or any other hostages unilaterally.
“Only as a consequence of a prisoner exchange will those held captive in our camps be set free. It is not acceptable that more peace gestures be asked of us.”
The FARC leaders who ordered the bonfire of business attire eight years ago – and who, more recently, rebuked “Raul Reyes” by email for having agreed to a hostage-exchange discussion in Venezuela last October – are plainly in the driver’s seat. While we must not abandon hope, it is very hard to be optimistic about the fate of those hostages whose health is failing.
We remind the FARC once more that the martyrdom of Ãngrid Betancourt or any of the other hostages will bring a wave of national and international rejection far greater than any that has came before. While the group may believe itself impervious to public opinion, this rejection will cement its international pariah status, marginalize all who consider it necessary to negotiate with them, and hand an enormous political victory to the hard line of their sworn enemy, Ãlvaro Uribe.
If there is any glimmer of hope at all right now for Betancourt, it can be gained by carefully parsing Granda and Santrich’s statement. While the FARC leaders rule out a hostage release without a prisoner exchange, they do not specify whether this exchange would require FARC and government representatives to meet in a demilitarized zone.
The statement does call for a demilitarized zone if any talks take place, but perhaps it leaves open the possibility of an exchange without talks. This is what the French government and freed hostage Luis Eladio PÃ©rez have been proposing, and what President Uribe made possible with a prisoner-release decree issued a week and a half ago.
Or perhaps the FARC mean to say “no” to that possibility as well. Their statement could just be poorly written.