Chávez sidelined by Colombian hostage rescue

Por Venezuela Real - 4 de Julio, 2008, 12:40, Categoría: Política Internacional

Associated Press
Miami Herald
July 04, 2008

BOGOTA --  Hugo Chávez, once a key mediator in securing hostage releases from Colombian rebels, could do little more than phone congratulations to President Alvaro Uribe after this week's bold rescue.

But even freed captive Ingrid Betancourt says the Venezuelan president and his leftist allies still have important roles in pushing the rebels toward peace.

The stunning rescue of the rebels' highest-value hostages without a single shot being fired in ''Operation Check'' has sidelined the Venezuelan president as a regional dealmaker, at least for the time being, many analysts say. Now Uribe is looking to declare ''checkmate,'' and may be more resistant than ever to compromise given his military's victories against the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

But Betancourt said Chávez, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and other leftist leaders can still play an important role in persuading the FARC rebels to seek peaceful solutions to Colombia's seemingly interminable conflict.

''We need the help of our neighbors,'' Betancourt said shortly after being freed. ``They can show the FARC that there's room in Latin America to win power the democratic way.''

She said Chávez and Correa are ''important allies in this process, but on the condition they have to respect Colombian democracy,'' and that Colombia's leftist neighbors could be particularly important in using ''the influence they have on FARC commanders'' to propel them toward negotiations.

But for now, these leaders are out of the picture, said Adam Isacson, a Latin America expert at the Washington-based Center for International Policy. The military rescue of Betancourt, three Americans and 11 other hostages on Wednesday ''made pretty clear to Chávez and Correa and the rest that their services will not be required,'' Isacson said.

For Uribe, it was just the boost he needed at a time when the Supreme Court was questioning the legitimacy of a law that permitted him to run for a second term, suggesting it resulted from ''criminal acts'' involving close aides.

The daring hostage rescue allowed Uribe to ''put a lid on the problems he had,'' said ex-guerrilla Leon Valencia, now a political analyst with the nongovernmental organization Fundacion Arcoiris.

''Uribe's government, and he himself have been relegitimized, strengthened after such an action,'' said analyst Elsa Cardoso, of the Central University of Venezuela.

By taking away the rebel's top bargaining chips, the hostage mission also relieved international pressure on the president to negotiate captives' releases with the FARC, said Rafael Nieto, a former deputy justice minister under Uribe.

While the rebels and the government have remained far apart on terms for a comprehensive swap of hostages for imprisoned guerrillas, the FARC did unilaterally free six hostages to Venezuelan officials in handovers mediated by Chávez earlier this year.

But relations between the Andean countries soured after Colombia reached across the Ecuadorean border March 1 to kill a top FARC leader and 24 other people. Documents the Colombians say they found in seized computers belonging to the slain leader indicate close rebel ties with Correa and Chávez.

The two leaders call the documents fakes. An Interpol investigation concluded the computer files had not been tampered with.

Chávez worked to smooth over tensions with the U.S.-allied Uribe, and the two are to meet for talks this month. It has helped that Chávez -- who previously called the FARC a legitimate army -- urged the rebels last month to give up violence and free all their remaining hostages, which the Colombian government estimates include about 700 people in remote camps.

But relations between Colombia and Ecuador remain seriously strained, and Uribe has shown no willingness to involve neighbors in negotiations with the FARC. It's also unclear how much influence Chávez has with the remaining rebel leaders, even though their movement has long expressed an ideological affinity with the socialist president.

Chávez has at times called Uribe a warmongering puppet of Washington who doesn't really want peace. But this week, he congratulated Uribe and said ``we're still ready and willing to help, not only in the liberation of every last hostage of the Colombian guerrillas but beyond that to achieve peace in Colombia.''

Leftist President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua also said the ''only path'' to peace is through negotiation. And in Bolivia, President Evo Morales praised the freeing of hostages along with ``the talks that our friend Hugo Chávez started.''

Ailing former Cuban president Fidel Castro on Friday welcomed the hostages' liberation in an essay, saying kidnappings of civilians are ''objectively cruel acts'' and that ``no revolutionary aim can justify it.''

In Ecuador, government minister Fernando Bustamante said ''we're enormously happy about the liberation of the hostages,'' despite the countries' differences.

Involving other countries ''might facilitate the process for the FARC to understand the degree of their isolation in the context of the rest of Latin America,'' said Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Ponoma College in California. ``Uribe would be wise not to simply adopt a rather triumphalist attitude and seek outside help to reach a negotiated settlement.''

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