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Friday, September 7, 2007

Hostage, but to whom? Colombia and Venezuela -

Colombia and Venezuela

Hostage, but to whom?
From The Economist print edition


In inviting Hugo Chávez (left) to negotiate with the FARC guerrillas, Álvaro Uribe (right) has taken a big risk

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IN HIS first term as Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe set his face against any negotiation with the country's left-wing FARC guerrillas, arguing that they had to be militarily weakened before they might talk seriously about peace. In particular, he rejected the FARC's calls for a “humanitarian accord”, its Orwellian term for swapping the better-known of its kidnapped hostages for dozens of jailed mid-level guerrillas. But in a startling about-face, Mr Uribe has invited Hugo Chávez, the leftist president of neighbouring Venezuela, to try and broker a deal.

That is a sign of how much pressure Mr Uribe, whose father was murdered by the FARC in a botched kidnap, now faces on the issue. The FARC has held a number of hostages for up to ten years because it considers them canjeable (swappable). The 45 people still in that category include Ingrid Betancourt, a politician of dual Franco-Colombian nationality; several other politicians; army and police officers; and three Americans working under contract to the State Department.

Colombian public opinion has veered towards favouring a swap after the killing in June, in circumstances yet to be clarified, of 11 regional legislators held by the FARC for the past five years. A schoolteacher whose son is a hostage drew widespread public support by marching 1,000km (620 miles) to Bogotá to call for a swap. France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has made obtaining the release of Ms Betancourt a priority. At his behest, Mr Uribe in June freed Rodrigo Granda, the highest-ranking prisoner, who promptly decamped to Cuba.

Hitherto, the main sticking point has been the FARC's demand for the government to withdraw troops from an area where negotiations would take place—something most Colombians oppose. It is to break this deadlock that Mr Uribe turned to Mr Chávez. The two men are ideological opposites but have developed a relationship of wary mutual respect. Mr Chávez leapt with gusto at the chance to be seen as a regional powerbroker. In the past two weeks he has met Mr Uribe and spoken to the families of both the hostages and the guerrilla prisoners.

If anyone can persuade the FARC to deal, it is indeed Mr Chávez. Its leaders have already agreed to meet him in Caracas. It is not long ago that Colombian officials were publicly accusing him of supporting the guerrillas and turning a blind eye to their alleged bases across the border in Venezuela. Raúl Reyes, a FARC leader, gave indirect support to such claims in an interview with La Jornada, a Mexican newspaper, published this week, in which he said he had met Mr Chávez.

Mr Uribe's defenders have long argued that a hostage swap will merely encourage further kidnapping. The FARC was behind nearly a third of 23,144 kidnappings in Colombia between 1996 and 2006, according to País Libre, a group that helps the families of kidnap victims. But that objection has been undermined by the president's own success in weakening the FARC. In 1998 the guerrillas kidnapped 1,016 people; by last year that figure had fallen to 122.

The bigger risk is that by bringing in Mr Chávez, Mr Uribe has granted the FARC an avenue to international legitimacy. If that were the prelude to serious peace talks, so much the better. But Mr Chávez, an elected president but one who has ridden roughshod over his country's institutions, is hardly best placed to persuade the FARC to accept the rules of democracy.

For Mr Chávez, the unexpected role of peacemaker is a welcome break from a string of foreign-policy setbacks. His decision not to renew the broadcasting licence of an opposition television station, his plans to change the constitution to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely, large-scale purchases of Russian arms and resistance in Brazil to his attempts to join the Mercosur trade block have all diminished his standing in the region.

His new role as mediator may also amplify his hitherto limited influence in Colombia—the main obstacle to his plans to turn his “Bolivarian revolution” into a pan-Andean project. After meeting Mr Uribe he released a group of Colombian paramilitaries arrested in 2004 on mysterious charges of plotting a coup in Venezuela. He also surprised people in both countries by saying he was anxious to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute with Colombia over the Gulf of Venezuela.

But the problem for Mr Chávez—and this might be Mr Uribe's calculation—could be that in the end the FARC may reckon that it has more to lose than gain by a deal. “The hostages are the only thing the FARC have that gets them heard internationally and gives them any importance domestically,” says Gerson Arias of Ideas para la Paz, a think-tank in Bogotá. Whatever the outcome, all three parties in the coming negotiations face risks, some of which may be unexpected.

Copyright © 2007 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

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