Los Angeles Times
November 23, 2007
The move is prompted by the Venezuelan leader's apparent breach of protocol in the prisoner exchange effort. The families of those held by FARC rebels are upset.
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Families of kidnapping victims reacted with anger Thursday after Colombia's president canceled authorization he had given Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to negotiate a prisoner swap with leftist guerrillas.
President Alvaro Uribe ended the controversial mediation by Venezuela's firebrand leader after Chavez attempted to talk directly to Colombia's armed forces commander for information about the hostages. Analysts said Chavez's bid to bypass Uribe was a clear violation of protocol that all such communication go through the Colombian president's office.
Uribe's spokesman announced the end of the three-month diplomatic initiative at a news conference late Wednesday. The statement came just hours after Uribe expressed confidence in the leftist Venezuelan leader's good intentions and prospects.
The announcement was bitterly disappointing to the victims' families, who saw Chavez as their only hope in breaking a years-long stalemate and who, in interviews Thursday, asked Uribe to reconsider.
"Imagine how we feel, the wives of the kidnapped, with no other alternative and no political will for a humanitarian accord. How will there be an agreement with no facilitators?" said Maria Teresa Paredes, whose police colonel husband, Luis, was kidnapped in November 1998.
Marleny Orejuela, who heads a group of families of military kidnapping victims, agreed.
"Yes, protocol is important, but so is the freedom of those kidnapped," Orejuela said. "If the president for one minute put himself in the shoes of those who have been held in such terrible conditions for so many years, maybe he would reconsider."
The move late Wednesday ends a high-profile effort by Chavez to bring about a humanitarian accord between Uribe's government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for the release of 45 political hostages held by the rebels. Hostages include former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. defense contractors, several politicians and more than three dozen members of the army and police.
Uribe gave Chavez the go-ahead after the failure of previous mediation efforts, most recently by negotiators from Spain, France and Switzerland. The Colombian government has offered to trade hundreds of suspected FARC rebels in its jails for the hostages, but the two sides are at odds over conditions for such a swap.
There were predictable ups and downs in the arrangement after Colombia's conservative president announced the initiative by Chavez, with leftist Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba designated as intermediary.
This month, Uribe winced at the friendly reception Chavez gave to two FARC emissaries at his Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas. Uribe then denied Chavez's assertion that the Venezuelan leader had been given permission to meet with FARC leader Manuel Marulanda in Colombian territory.
Chavez's attempt to call the armed forces chief, Gen. Mario Montoya, from Cuba using Cordoba's cellphone was the final straw.
The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday that it "accepts this sovereign decision by the government of Colombia, but expresses its frustration given that in this manner the process that was being carried out with determination has been aborted."
The odds of a hostages-for-prisoners swap were long from the very beginning, given the intense bitterness and suspicion clouding any dealings between the FARC and Uribe, whose father was killed by rebels in 1983.
The government's position had only hardened since the killings in June of 11 state deputies in FARC custody who had been taken hostage in Cali in 2002. Rebels said they were killed in an unexplained "military confrontation"; Uribe said the FARC assassinated them.
Still, delegating authority to Chavez seemed a reasonable risk, given the lack of alternatives. But the recalcitrance of the FARC soon began to frustrate even Chavez, who had hoped to present "proof of life" videos of hostages this week at a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris. Sarkozy has made the release of Betancourt, who holds Colombian and French citizenship, a priority.
Chavez arrived at the meeting empty-handed, an embarrassment as well for Sarkozy, who in June persuaded Uribe to release a FARC commander to prod negotiations.
"We continue to think that President Chavez is the best chance of securing the release of Ingrid Betancourt and all the other hostages," a Sarkozy spokesman, David Martinon, told reporters in Paris on Thursday.
Chavez's initiative faced obstacles from the start. Uribe has insisted all along that he would never agree to two FARC prerequisites for any release: that the government create a safe zone in central Colombia where the FARC could operate free of military harassment and that any rebels released from government custody as part of the exchange be returned to FARC command.
Another obstacle developed when Chavez insisted on meeting the FARC command on Colombian soil, a proposal to which Uribe finally acceded on the condition that all hostages be released beforehand. Chavez's response to Uribe's stipulation: "Why should I go if all hostages are already released?"