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Colombian Hostage Negotiations Deserved More Time

Negotiations for Colombian Hostage Release Deserved More Time


by Adam Isacson
Americas Program, Center for International Policy

With President Uribe's decision to cut off a negotiations process led by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, hope that the FARC guerrillas will release long-held kidnapping victims has faded once again. Meanwhile, relations between Venezuela and Colombia have sharply deteriorated.

Recent events can be traced back to June 2001, when the peace process in Colombia was limping toward failure. Jorge Briceño, "military leader" of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), made an ominous public threat. "We have to grab people from the Senate, from Congress, judges and ministers, from all the three powers [of the Colombian state], and we'll see how they squeal," said Briceño.

Over the next two years, the FARC carried out a rash of high-profile kidnappings, abducting dozens of legislators, government officials, a presidential candidate and—after their plane went down in guerrilla-controlled territory—three U.S. citizens working for a Defense Department contractor. The hostages have languished in Colombia's jungles ever since, along with military officers captured on the battlefield.

Some kidnapping victims have spent nearly a decade in FARC custody, and little is known about their health or their whereabouts. Eleven were killed in June 2007, under circumstances that remain to be clarified. An estimated 45 remain, as anguished relatives demand their release.

In the case of the "high profile" hostages, unlike their other kidnapping victims, the FARC isn't demanding ransom in exchange for release. Instead, the guerrillas are demanding that the Colombian government exchange them for FARC prisoners, including two who have already been extradited to the United States. Before even discussing this exchange, however, the FARC first demands that the Colombian government pull troops out of two municipalities—an 800 square-kilometer zone.

The government of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has consistently opposed creation of such demilitarized zones and refuses to meet these preconditions. The FARC, in turn, has refused to consider any other formula. Talks have gone nowhere, and the hostages remain captive. At times breakthroughs have seemed possible, but each time families' hopes have been dashed.

The latest letdown came at the end of November. Hopes for the release of the hostages had been raised in August 2007, when President Uribe authorized Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, along with Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba, to serve as "facilitators" for prisoner exchange talks with the guerrillas.

Chávez and Córdoba—both ambitious politicians from the left—proved to be energetic, persistent advocates of dialogue. They met with the FARC leadership, family members of the hostages, U.S. congressional representatives, and anyone else they believed could move the process forward.

President Uribe received praise for showing flexibility and reaching out to political rivals. Family members expressed more optimism than they had in years. Chávez's and Córdoba's efforts, widely viewed as a "last best hope" for resolving the hostage crisis, moved slowly but steadily forward, with FARC Secretariat member Iván Márquez appearing in Caracas in early November to discuss the release of its kidnap victims.

But hope unraveled quickly the week of November 19. While in France, Chávez and Córdoba acknowledged that the FARC had not yet provided any "proof of life" for Íngrid Betancourt—a French-Colombian politician whom the FARC has held since 2002. Chávez also angered Uribe by publicly revealing commitments the Colombian president had made in private; Uribe retaliated by giving Chávez a deadline of December 31 to finish his facilitation.

Then, on November 21, President Chávez's involvement in the talks came to an abrupt end. Citing a phone call that Chávez had placed to the head of Colombia's army, Uribe "de-authorized" the Venezuelan president and Senator Córdoba and prohibited them from playing any further role.

Where Do Things Stand Now?

This latest effort to free the hostages had offered more hope than any previous attempt. The abrupt end of the talks leaves no near-term prospects for other similar initiatives.

The following are a few observations on the present situation:

  • The FARC gets much of the blame. The guerrillas deserve condemnation for precipitating the entire situation by cruelly holding hostages for so many years. They also warrant criticism for their continuing rigidity at every stage of these initial talks.

    The FARC committed some grave errors during the process, two of them during its last 10 days. Their release of photos showing a jovial exchange with mediator Sen. Piedad Córdoba, against her expressed wishes, dealt a severe blow to the integrity of the process in the arena of Colombian public opinion.

    Then, perhaps more seriously, the FARC did Hugo Chávez an enormous disservice by allowing him to go on a long-planned trip to Paris with no proofs of life for hostage Ingrid Betancourt, whose ordeal is regular front-page news in France. Chávez must have been furious with the FARC leadership for forcing him to go before the expectant French public embarrassingly empty-handed.

  • The Uribe government is also to blame. After authorizing Sen. Córdoba and President Chávez to mediate, it did little to make their difficult job any easier. There was never really a joint Colombian-Venezuelan effort to free the hostages. After President Uribe made a public show of nominating the two facilitators, he gave them no support, effectively washing his hands of the whole affair.

    Sen. Córdoba traveled to Washington three times with no apparent support from the Colombian government—no financial support, no official accompaniment, no sign that she had any political backing from Bogotá. What's more, the Colombian government made clear that it would deploy the military to make it difficult for the FARC to participate in meetings with the facilitators.

  • The mediators made mistakes but not fatal ones. President Chávez and Sen. Córdoba certainly committed their share of mistakes, though these were largely instances of indiscretions and overreaching. Neither one is a discreet professional mediator; rather both are politicians known for their energetic tenacity.

    These errors included Sen. Córdoba's above-mentioned photos depicting a lighthearted moment with FARC members in Caracas, and President Chávez's revelation in France of a possible future meeting with FARC leader Manuel Marulanda in Colombia—a topic he had discussed in confidence with President Uribe.

    Then there was President Chávez's violation of protocol by placing a direct phone call to Colombian Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya, against President Uribe's expressed wishes.

    Nonetheless, President Uribe's decision to call off the talks as a result of that phone call has a whiff of pretext about it. Why would he terminate the talks, rather than issuing a stern public warning, unless he was already looking for a reason to end a process that had clearly escaped his control?

    A complicated process like this can take a long time and require a great deal of patience, but the Colombian government showed very little.

Moving Forward

  • Presidents Chávez and Uribe must cool down the rhetoric. The "firing" of Chávez has triggered the worst crisis in Colombian-Venezuelan relations in decades. Although the two leaders are polar opposites in ideological terms, they had previously avoided direct attacks. No longer; since November 21 Chávez has called Uribe a "liar" who "spit" in his face, and announced a "freezing" of bilateral relations including the recall of Venezuela's ambassador. Uribe, meanwhile, has accused Chávez of fomenting a "terrorist, Marxist" FARC regime in Colombia.
  • The FARC must keep the "proofs of life" coming. The guerrillas said recently they had issued orders to provide "proofs of life"—videos or photos of the hostages—as a gesture of good faith. President Chávez said in France that the guerrillas planned to issue these proofs before the end of the year. On November 30, the Colombian army claimed that it captured three FARC members in Bogotá with five videos of the kidnapping victims. Relatives of the victims thanked President Chávez and Sen. Córdoba for having pressured the FARC to provide this evidence that their family members were still alive.

    Seeing the hostages' faces—in most cases, for the first time in four years or more—is one of the only positive developments imaginable that could get talks re-started. By once again putting a "human face" on what has become a rather ugly process of jockeying for political position, such evidence could have enough impact on public opinion to build the political will necessary to get back to the table.

President Chávez and Senator Córdoba deserve our profound and heartfelt thanks. Although they committed some unfortunate mistakes, both facilitators did their jobs with energy, perseverance, patience, and creativity.

If only they had been given more time.

*************

Adam Isacson is director of the Demilitarization of Latin America program at the Center for International Policy (CIP, www.ciponline.org), and has coordinated CIP's demilitarization efforts since 1995. He works in conjunction with the Americas Policy Program at www.americaspolicy.org and other organizations on related Colombia issues.

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