TOBY MUSE / IAN JAMES
August 29, 2007
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is taking on a risky role as a mediator in Colombia's hostage standoff, stepping squarely into his neighbor's civil conflict and provoking optimism among the families of those long held captive by rebels.
At the invitation of President Alvaro Uribe, Chávez comes to Colombia on Friday to discuss how he might facilitate an exchange of imprisoned rebels for hostages.
''I hope we can make it so these people return safe and sound to their homes and that this humanitarian agreement comes through,'' the Venezuelan president said last week in Caracas during a meeting with the grateful families of the hostages.
But Colombia's civil conflict is complex, and Chávez got a rude awakening when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rejected his first concrete proposal -- an offer of Venezuela as the site for the swap.
Chávez unabashedly targets the U.S. government and his detractors in countries from Mexico to Spain with incendiary rhetoric, but has seldom involved himself so directly with the internal affairs of another nation. He has long sought to maintain cordial relations with the U.S.-allied Uribe despite their ideological differences.
If he succeeds in Colombia, he could expand his influence and improve his image.
On the surface, the deal seems easy: Both the government and the rebels have voiced support in principle for swapping hundreds of imprisoned FARC rebels in Colombian prisons for about 45 hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors and the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.
But the sides have been bickering over details for years.
The latest sticking point is the demand by the FARC for a 45-day demilitarization of a 310 square-mile zone in southwestern Colombia. The group says it needs the municipalities of Florida and Pradera cleared of troops to ensure the safety of the hostages and its fighters during the handover.
Uribe has refused any territorial concessions, saying the last time Colombia provided a demilitarized zone, leftist guerrillas gained strength and built airstrips to ship cocaine.
Chávez offered Venezuela as an alternative, but the FARC refused, saying it would be happy to hold talks in Venezuela but the handover must occur in Colombia.
Another FARC demand is that the exchange include two rebels now serving U.S. prison terms; they would have to be pardoned by President Bush for that to happen.
Less discussed is what to do with freed guerrillas. The FARC insists they be allowed to return to their 43-year-old insurgency. Uribe's government insists they must live outside Colombia or promise not to return to crime or rebellion.
Despite the obstacles, the families of the captives are hopeful.
''I am optimistic that Chávez will advance this process, with the respect he has within the rebels and across Latin America,'' said Yolanda Pulecio, the mother of Betancourt, who recently marked her 2000th day in captivity.
What may prove key is how much the FARC is prepared to do for Chávez. They profess an ideological affinity -- the FARC calls itself a ''Bolivarian'' guerrilla force, just as Chávez has named his socialist movement after independence hero Simón Bolívar.
''The guerrillas of the FARC that I met see in Venezuela's President Chávez their ideological leader,'' said Colombia's foreign minister, Fernando Araujo, who was kidnapped by the FARC and held for six years before escaping last December. ``They are constantly studying Chávez's biography, they watch documentaries about Chávez on television, there is a sense of excitement among guerrillas when they hear Chávez speaking on the radio.''
Chávez predicted his opponents will try to falsely portray him as a collaborator by saying, ``Look, Chávez immediately called (FARC leader Manuel) Marulanda on the black phone he has.''
''That doesn't matter to me. What you want is to be useful. I hope we can achieve an agreement for a humanitarian exchange,'' he said.
Chavez called on both sides to be flexible, urging Uribe and Marulanda to ``facilitate our work.''