The Miami Herald
January 11, 2008
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez shocked Colombia by saying leftist guerrilla groups FARC and ELN were 'insurgent forces' with 'respected' political aims.
CARACAS -- A stunning call by President Hugo Chávez for Colombian guerrillas to be treated not as terrorists but as respected ''insurgent forces'' was angrily rejected in Bogotá Friday before Chávez even finished his speech.
In his annual address to the National Assembly, Chávez said the two leftist guerrilla groups -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN -- were ''not terrorists but real armies that occupy territory'' and should be recognized as an ``insurgent force.''
Going a step further, Chávez -- who has consistently professed his neutrality in the Colombian conflict despite his leftist policies -- said the two groups had a political project ``that is respected here.''
Bogotá has long branded the FARC and ELN ''narco-terrorists'' because of links to cocaine trafficking. The U.S. government and the European Union list the FARC as a terrorist organization.
Before Chávez had even finished his four-hour speech, Colombian Interior Minister Carlos Holguín said his government ''could not accept a request of that nature,'' and added that its description of the guerrillas as terrorists was ``not gratuitous [but] derives from the actions they carry out.''
A spokesman for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe later read a statement saying that under no circumstances would the government recognize ''terrorist'' groups. The FARC's motivation is ``not ideological -- to the contrary, it is to accumulate money derived from cruelty and illicit business.''
''Our position has not changed: The FARC is a foreign terrorist organization,'' said State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke.
Chávez's comments on the FARC and ELN were certain to raise tensions between Venezuela and Colombia, which share a 1,200-mile and thinly populated border allegedly often crossed by FARC rebels to rest from their decades-old war against the government. He made them while reflecting on his success in achieving the liberation Thursday of two hostages held by the FARC for the past six years.
Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín also had outraged Colombians when he was videotaped by the Venezuelan-funded TV channel Telesur during the release telling the armed FARC guerrillas who freed the women: ``On behalf of President Chávez. . . we are paying attention to your struggle. . . . Keep up that spirit, keep up that strength and count on us.''
The president of the Colombian congress, Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, told the TV news channel RCN that Rodríguez Chacín's words had been received in Colombia with ''stupefaction and indignation,'' and called Chávez's comments ``a very big mistake.''
A retired Naval officer and intelligence specialist, Rodríguez Chacín is considered a close Chávez collaborator. He was named interior minister last week.
In Venezuela, the Chávez declaration was also greeted with surprise. ''I don't remember Chávez ever going so far,'' said Elsa Cardozo, a specialist in international relations at the Metropolitan University in Caracas. ``It is an open intervention in Colombian affairs.''
Experts in international law say that to recognize the guerrillas as ''belligerent forces'' would be to place them on the same level as the government.
''The question would be,'' said one specialist who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his post, ``with whom do you have diplomatic relations?''
Ever since he was first elected president in 1998, Chávez has been accused of maintaining an excessively close relationship with the Colombian guerrillas.
In recent weeks there have been rumors in Venezuela that the FARC would shortly be establishing an office in Caracas to handle its relations with the government -- so far largely focused on the release of hostages.
Miami Herald Correspondent Pablo Bachelet contributed from Washington.