Chavez boosts image in messy Colombian mediation

Por Venezuela Real - 11 de Octubre, 2007, 15:11, Categoría: Injerencia de/en Venezuela

Saul Hudson 
Boston News
October 11, 2007

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has improved his international image by mediating with Colombian rebels to release high-profile U.S. and French hostages despite a sputtering start to talks.

Chavez's anti-American, anti-capitalism diatribes typically distance him from Western governments. Outside Latin America, he focuses much of his foreign policy on cozying up to other U.S. antagonists such as Iran, Belarus and Russia.

But the chance in recent weeks to aid his neighbor, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, has brought immediate diplomatic gains even though he has failed to arrange a first meeting with the FARC guerrillas.

Chavez won praise in telephone calls with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, while the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America met his foreign minister for the first time and 41 European nations issued a statement supporting his efforts.

Chavez has irritated Colombian officials with his talkative and folksy style, exposing differences with the conservative Uribe, a firm U.S. ally. But the pluses for him far outweigh the minuses.

"For Chavez, the upside is obvious," said Michael Shifter of Washington's Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

"The opportunity to break the long-festering hostage-prisoner impasse seems tailor-made for a man who is using his country's considerable oil wealth to finance an effort to build a Latin American alliance opposed to the United States," he said.

"If Chavez can project the image of a regional leader committed to peace, that's all the better for his cause."

While Chavez risks being blamed for failure, his involvement at Uribe's request is awkward for Washington.

U.S. officials have accused him of aiding the rebels on his avowed drive to spread socialism and blunt U.S. "imperialism."


On Friday, Chavez visits Uribe to discusses ways to jump start talks with the Marxist rebels that were postponed this week after the two leaders argued over the logistics of his FARC meeting.

For the first time in years, Latin America's oldest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as FARC, has shifted to possibly freeing hostages by agreeing to talks with Chavez.

That has raised hopes that a French-Colombian woman and three U.S. anti-drugs contractors could be freed, which would help Uribe who is facing political heat because of the deaths in captivity this year of 11 provincial lawmakers.

Chavez has taken full advantage of the opportunity. On his weekly TV show, he comments on behind-the scenes negotiations, displaying his correspondence with the guerrillas, and appeals to Uribe to soften his position.

Cameras have shown him meeting a Colombian senator go-between, a French envoy and hostages' families. He held the hands with children related to a U.S. captive, leading the blond boys down his red-carpeted palace steps.

Still, his style brings risks.

Colombia, whose aggressive stance has weakened the guerrillas in recent years, balks at Chavez's showmanship, complicating his chances of success.

"The only thing his (public statements) do is stoke fear and rejection and close off the path to an accord," Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said.

"Chavez runs the risk of becoming a third player in the actual conflict if he is unable to negotiate discreetly -- and that's something many people doubt he can do," said Carlos Romero, a Venezuelan analyst of international politics.

(Additional reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel in Caracas and Patrick Markey in Bogota)

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