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Hostage Drama Shows Flaws in Washington's Policy on Colombia

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Mark Weisbrot   En español
WashingtonPost.com, January 15, 2008

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It has had the makings of a telenovela – a Latin American soap opera: hostages held for years deep in the Colombian jungle, anxious anticipation and tearful reunions, and most spectacular of all, the boy: Emmanuel. Born three and a half years ago in captivity, of a liaison between a FARC guerilla and captive Clara Rojas, his tiny arm broken at birth by a difficult Caesarian under jungle conditions, surviving leishmaniasis and dumped off on a poor rural family that transferred him to the state – he somehow survived and was found in time to reunite with his mother as she savored her long-awaited freedom.

But for those who had the time to look beyond the headlines, there were important political realities that the drama underscored. Most importantly, the Bush Administration has once again staked out a position on a long-running armed conflict that puts Washington outside the mainstream of the international community.

First, the facts: Clara Rojas was a vice-presidential candidate when she was kidnapped by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in 2002; at the same time, the FARC also kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. Consuelo Gonzalez, a Colombian Congresswoman, was kidnapped in 2001. The FARC is holding hundreds of other hostages and prisoners, and hopes to exchange at least some of the high profile ones for prisoners held by the government.

The Colombian government appears to believe that it can win the 40-year war through purely military (and paramilitary) means. The Bush Administration shares this view, and supplies Colombia with more than $600 million annually in military aid, which is sometimes labeled "anti-drug" aid. But there has been increasing pressure for negotiations: from inside Colombia, led by the courageous Senator Piedad Cordoba; from the families of the hostages; and from Europe – where Ingrid Bentancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, is well-known and has much sympathy.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela offered to mediate, and in August, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia accepted his offer. Uribe and Chavez had maintained a mostly cordial relationship for years, despite being on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

But on November 21st, Uribe suddenly withdrew Chavez's authorization to mediate. The move came just after a phone call from President Bush, who clearly did not want Chavez to have an international diplomatic success on the eve of a Venezuelan constitutional referendum (December 2). Chavez was furious at what he saw as a betrayal by Uribe, and suspected he was caving to his most important funder. Uribe's stated reason for sacking Chavez was that the Venezuelan president had, very briefly, talked to one of his generals after Piedad Cordoba had passed the phone to him. It seemed like a flimsy pretext for cutting off the negotiations without even a phone call to Venezuela, and Chavez let loose with a barrage of insults.

But Chavez persisted and by the weekend of New Year's Eve, a mission was assembled to receive the two women and the boy Emmanuel, with representatives of Brazil, Argentina (former President Nestor Kirchner), Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Switzerland and the Red Cross on hand. While the other governments expressed hopes that the release could lead to peace talks, Washington showed no interest in the effort. It failed, and the story took a new twist when it turned out the boy was not in the FARC's custody but in foster care in Bogota.

On Friday, the two women hostages were finally released to Venezuelan and Red Cross officials, and on Sunday Clara Rojas was reunited with her son.

Interestingly, the foreign policy establishment here – which includes most of the major media – does not seem to notice that the Bush Administration is the outlier in this situation. For them, Chavez is the enemy, and his intervention is viewed with suspicion, and even as an attempt to side with the FARC.

In the last few days, Chavez has called for the FARC to be recognized as insurgents rather than terrorists. This has been portrayed as "support" for the FARC. However, his position is the same as other governments in the region. They have consistently rebuffed U.S. pressure to officially label the FARC as a "terrorist" organization. Brazil’s government has said that to classify the FARC as “terrorist” organization would likely damage any prospects of negotiating a solution to the country’s civil conflict.

The FARC clearly does engage in actions that can be considered terrorist, including kidnappings. However, so does the Colombian government, and over the years international human rights groups have found right-wing paramilitaries linked to the government responsible for the vast majority of atrocities. And during the last year, revelations of ties between Uribe's political allies and the death squads have severely damaged the government's reputation, and led to the arrest of more than a dozen legislators.

To label only one side "terrorist" would therefore be seen as adopting the U.S. strategy that favors violence over negotiation as a means of ending the conflict, so other governments in the region have refused to do so. For his part, Chavez stated clearly that he does not support the armed struggle or kidnappings of the FARC, and offered to try to convince its leadership to put down their arms and pursue a peaceful, electoral route to political change.

The Bush Administration's policy of "no negotiations with terrorists,"  with the label selectively applied, makes no more sense in this hemisphere than in other parts of the world.  It is also a blow to the families of three U.S. military contractors who are currently held by the FARC. The release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez is progress, and could be a first step toward negotiating an end to this prolonged war. Washington should join with the rest of the hemisphere – including Venezuela – and support a negotiated solution.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.