Enrique ter Horst
July 10, 2008
The daring but impeccably executed operation by Colombian security forces that led to the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other high-profile hostages held by the FARC, including three US military, is an event of extraordinary strategic and political significance for Hugo Chavez and Alvaro Uribe, and maybe also for South America and the US. Coming after the seizure of the Reyes computers, the deaths of FARC leaders Reyes and Marulanda, the capture in Colombia of two active Venezuelan military with 40.000 bullets of AK ammunition, and a steady number of guerrilla desertions, it further demoralizes the FARC and validates the strategy of militarily defeating it. Uribe's inflexible position to only negotiate from a position of military strength has been confirmed in the last six months to a point were it is now Chavez and his ideological allies in Colombia and elsewhere who are pushing for a negotiated solution that would allow the FARC and the ELN to survive as political parties by forsaking their armed struggle and surrendering their weapons.Uribe and Chavez will be meeting tomorrow in Coro, Venezuela, and the strengths and weaknesses of both leaders could have important and lasting consequences for their two countries and for the region.
The vast majority of Colombians have been seeing the FARC and the ELN as mafia type organizations that thrive on extorsion and drugs, and their political support in Colombia has been hovering around 3% for a number of years now. The FARC's political message lost whatever credibility it still had with the cruel treatment of its hostages, some of whom they have held for almost a decade. When last November Uribe withdrew the mandate he had given Chavez to facilitate a humanitarian exchange in Colombia because he had clearly overstepped its terms (thus contributing, with King Juan Carlos' “porque no te callas?”, to the defeat of Chavez' constitutional reform package last December), Chavez reacted by proposing that the two guerrilla movements be given belligerant status.
The objective was to force Uribe to enter a political negotiation that would save their skins, quite literally, but also keep Chavez' foot in Colombia's door by ensuring the survival of those promoting his particular brand of radical socialism there. Ingrid Betancourt was the big bargaining chip to move things in this direction, and Chavez' expression of happiness at her liberation took quite some time, unsurprisingly. Uribe now feels closer to a military victory, and Chavez ideological allies will now be facing very rough times. His attempt to transform a band of thugs into politically respectable negotiating partners has damaged his own standing enormously.
Uribe's new strategic strength, important as it is, is only part of the picture, however, even if it probably will allow him to remain in power as long as Chavez is President of Venezuela. The Venezuelan market is very important for Colombia, as around 15% of its exports go there, and fully 30% of its manufactures, but with falling food production in Venezuela, imports from Colombia have become of crucial importance to Venezuela. Chavez has great financial clout, as oil exports provide him with $ 200 million a day, and some 5 million Colombians still live in Venezuela, although quite a number have been returning due to the rapidly deteriorating security situation. Most now have dual citizenship, a Chavez present to entice them to vote for him. Many of them did at the recall referendum in 2004 and at the last Presidential election in December 2006, but after the recent threat of a war with Colombia most have become staunch “uribistas”. Regional elections in Venezuela on 23 November will reveal if Chavez recovers a majority of the popular vote or if he is stuck in a minority position, in which case the door will be open to hold a new recall referendum in 2010. Tomorrow in Coro Uribe could be tempted into securing a promise by Chavez not to meddle in Colombia against a fairly free hand for Chavez to ensure his hold on power in Venezuela. Apart from the doubtful value of such a promise, the sacrifice of democracy in Venezuela for a semblance of stability in the Andes could produce results in the short term, but is likely to prove explosive later on. On the other hand , Uribe could also play a historic role as the forceful and principled democratic peacemaker, not only in Colombia, but beyond. Churchill, not Chamberlain.