ChÃ¡vez upbraiding the FARC on Venezuelan TV yesterday.
“Uribe has made a winning bet,” the Colombian newsmagazine Semana wrote last August, days after Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe gave Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez the green light to mediate hostage-for-prisoner-exchange talks with the FARC guerrillas.
He delegates to ChÃ¡vez the biggest headache of his second term [the hostage crisis]. If things go well for ChÃ¡vez, the Colombian government will get credit for having sought the right facilitator. If they go poorly, the government doesn’t lose because it will confirm its position that the FARC are the real obstacle to an exchange.
Perhaps President Uribe truly expected that the FARC’s excruciatingly slow, stubborn approach to negotiations would frustrate even Hugo ChÃ¡vez, thus strengthening his government’s harder line on talks (”If even Hugo ChÃ¡vez can’t talk to them…”).
If so, it has certainly taken a long time for ChÃ¡vez to show any signs of frustration. But he certainly did on Sunday. More than five weeks after publicly announcing that he would be playing a more active role in mediating hostage-for-prisoner talks with the FARC, ChÃ¡vez had this to say yesterday on his weekly television address.
I believe that the time has come for the FARC to release all the people it has up in the mountains unconditionally. It would be a great humanitarian gesture. … Guerrilla wars have become history in Latin America. … This far along in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of step, and that has to be said to the FARC. … The FARC should know this: you have become an excuse, a justification for the Empire to threaten all of us. You are the perfect excuse.
These are not the words of a facilitator who believes that his efforts are bearing fruit. For a variety of reasons – chief among them the flap over the emails on RaÃºl Reyes’ computers – Hugo ChÃ¡vez’s mediating role, for now at least, is diminished.
This is not good news, because ChÃ¡vez was one of the leading candidates in the search for an interlocutor who could help win freedom for the guerrillas’ hostages. And now, because of evidence on the recovered computers allegedly indicating that they were too close to the FARC, many of the most frequently mentioned possible mediators – Ãlvaro Leyva, Carlos Lozano, Piedad CÃ³rdoba and others – are facing the preliminary phase of a criminal investigation.
With targeted efforts against top guerrilla leaders and generous treatment for rank-and-file deserters, the Colombian government is effectively closing off the FARC’s military options. At the same time, though, it is closing off the guerrillas’ options for a political solution as well.
Would-be facilitators are being warned off. The paramilitary leaders’ mass extradition sent a message to guerrilla leaders that the “Justice and Peace” law will not protect them if they desert. A (probably growing) faction in the Uribe government is clearly convinced that a military victory is at hand – that the war is in the home stretch. They contend that any negotiation now would break the momentum, giving the guerrillas an undeserved pause and a chance to negotiate more than just surrender terms.
For this faction, anyone promoting negotiations – even to free the hostages – is simply in the way. And the hostages – seven civilians, thirty-three military and police, and untold hundreds held for ransom – are as far as ever from freedom.
But there’s more. In the current mood, there is increasing reason to be concerned that a military rescue attempt could be in the works. Today, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos revealed that Colombian soldiers recently saw the three U.S. citizen hostages bathing in a river in Guaviare. As military operations continue in Guaviare and VaupÃ©s, where hostages are believed to be held, and as the Defense Ministry plans “humanitarian cordons” around sites where captives might be, today’s message was clear: “we know where the hostages are and we may be preparing to act.”
It is still a very long way from knowing the hostages’ whereabouts to carrying out a successful military rescue. Past attempts to rescue the FARC’s “exchange” hostages, breaking past rings of security in thick jungle, have failed horribly as FARC guards acted on orders to cold-bloodedly kill their charges at the first sign of a rescue attempt.
Something is about to break with the hostage situation. Let’s hope that the next shoe to drop is not a rash military rescue, based on an overconfident assessment that, with the FARC on the ropes, the outcome will be different this time.
Instead, let’s hope that freed hostage Luis Eladio PÃ©rez was basing himself on solid information today when he said that “the country will soon hear the news” that the FARC are to release four more hostages unilaterally, including the son of “peace walker” Gustavo Moncayo.
In the very least, let’s hope that President ChÃ¡vez’s advice might affect the FARC’s thinking, emboldening guerrilla moderates and setting much of the group on the long path toward civilization. If it does, the Colombian government should not view as obstacles or criminals those who would use their guerrilla contacts to prod them on this path.