By Constatin Schoehl  van Norman

The Colombian government has invited Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez to mediate the FARC conflict in the hope of achieving a “humanitarian accord;” the euphemism for swapping approximately 40 hostages in exchange for an estimated 350 mid-level convicted FARC representatives, mostly captured in violent clashes with the Colombian army. The mutual intentions of the two governments have not always been particularly benign. The diplomatic move coincides with ostensible snubbing of Uribe in the U.S. Congress combined with diplomatic pressure from a newly elected French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Democratic majority in the Congress, who follow their intuition when blocking free trade deals, have stalled the ratification of the signed free trade agreement with a government presiding over Colombia’s recovering, almost surging economy. It is fair to say that the Democrats deserve credit for pushing the necessary purge of Colombia’s forces, eliminating officers with ties to the right wing paramilitary, but the important human rights “score points” at home might come at a high cost, alienating the closest U.S. ally in the Andean region.

Additional cuts in “Plan Colombia” will reflect in the army’s future capabilities and may shift the military advantages in favor of the FARC.  Since the United States is Colombia’s largest trading partner, the stalled ratification might hamper further increase in foreign investment, partially based on the expectations of better market access for Colombian goods.  The seduction of protectionism in the Congress is likely to damage a successful example of a market oriented economy which is heavily challenged by a reversion to “21st century socialism.”

In contrast, the Colombian government received support from Canada which has taken a more pragmatic stand on development and is moving towards a separate trade agreement with Colombia.  Canadian President, Steven Harper, completed a visit to Canada’s third largest South American export market, lauding Uribe’s measurable successes in improving security and recommending free trade as a tool for sustainable economic development. However, Canada will never be able to replace the United States market.

The failure to reach a Free Trade Agreement has slightly lowered Uribe’s overwhelming popularity, since he has always pushed for the FTA against domestic resistance.  The feeling of humiliation emanating from Washington might have influenced the government to recalibrate its regional relations.  In this regard, Uribe has recently called on Hugo Chavez to mediate the FARC conflict, brokering a deal to swap prominent hostages like the former presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt.  Since the FARC insists on the creation of a demilitarized zone, prior to any negotiations, the government has picked up the Venezuelan offer to mediate the negotiations.

The FARC lost considerable influence over the last years after being pushed back deep into the jungle by determined and sometimes harsh military measures and is now in a weakened position.  The creation of a demilitarized zone has met with consistent objections from the Colombian government. In the past, the demilitarized zone provided fertile territory for violence for paramilitary and guerilla activity.  Some seven years ago, when the FARC took most of the current hostages and controlled an estimated 40 % of the country’s territory, there already was a demilitarized zone.  A good number of atrocities from left and right wing paramilitary forces took place in the power vacuum and allowed the recruitment of many fighters.  It helped create the largest number of Latin American internally displaced persons.  Cuts in “Plan Colombia” and the failure in Washington to ratify the FTA probably was an impetus in convincing the government to request help from a dangerous power broker.

Colombian representatives have frequently accused Venezuela of harboring and supporting FARC terrorists. The Granda affair only seemed to confirm that Venezuela’s connections to the FARC exceed sheer toleration. Rodrigo Granda, a prominent FARC leader, was able to attend a conference in Venezuela, in December 2004, despite being a sought-after criminal in Colombia.  After being seized by Colombians on Venezuelan territory has now been released and has left for Cuba.   This is mainly due to massive French diplomatic pressure.  Sarkozy is now interested in liberating Ingrid Betancourt who holds French/Colombian dual citizenship.  Ms. Betancourt, the former Colombian presidential candidate was kidnapped by the FARC because she journeyed into their territory despite warnings from the Colombian authorities not to do so.

 

Uribe won his first term by advocating a hard-line strategy against the FARC, as opposed to the failed negotiations of his predecessor, Andres Pastrana.  If Colombia reenters talks now, it can do so from a position of strength, more so now than at any time before.  The negotiations are now supported by the majority of Colombians, within a climate of general “normalization.”

Needless to say, Chavez immediately jumped on this opportunity to mediate between the two sides. What better stage is there for the leader of a Pan-Andean movement than to broker a deal in a neighboring state; at a time when some analysts already saw him past his zenith: the RCTV scandal has finally scarred his image among the human rights activists, mainly in Europe.  The Brazilian legislature shows reluctance to ratify Venezuela’s MERCOSUR membership and the announcement by Chavez to institutionalize his persona together with the “Bolivarian revolution” indefinitely, has been met with criticism even inside his own camp.  Besides, there is no better opportunity to loosen the close U.S. Colombian alliance than exploiting the current disappointment in Bogotá.  Chavez might have some leverage over the FARC and is almost more respected than is appropriate for a mediator between a regular government and a faction, widely recognized as a terrorist organization. “Commandante,” Raúl Reyes, a senior FARC representative hailed Chavez’ initiative and called him a “leader of outstanding importance on the continent.”  Reyes commands the “Southern Block” of the FARC operating in the jungle region along the Ecuadorian border.  During the same interview with the Mexican newspaper, “La Jornada,” he admitted to knowing the Venezuelan president personally.

 

Using Chavez as the mediator might come with further diplomatic costs for Colombia, however: Chavez announced that his involvement might also be an opportunity to settle the pending border dispute over the potentially energy rich Gulf of Guajira.  It is hard to imagine, in this context, that Colombia would not be forced to make some concessions over the disputed areas.

Chavez’s ties to the FARC might almost be too good; but he undoubtedly has some leverage over the guerillas and is a person they trust. An agreement to resume negotiations with the guerillas represents a 180 degree shift in Colombian policy but they might have their own calculus. If the talks fail, this could be blamed on Chavez, satisfying the general desire for negotiations without giving the blame to Uribe. A favorable deal would benefit the Colombians in substance, since any alleviation of this endemic conflict will benefit the whole country ending the domestic paralyzing situation. At least, the French demands for negotiations would be met. The move might also be a hint to the U.S. Congress, conveying the idea that Colombia is not invariably bound to the U.S. alliance in its foreign affairs nor that its allegiance can be taken for granted.  Better relations with Venezuela will also alleviate the antagonism of the majority of left leaning governments in the Andean region.

 

However, it is a risky move inviting a political rival into the most vulnerable Colombian sphere, as the ongoing conflict has been Colombia’s Achilles heel for decades. Chavez is not just antagonistic to prosperous market oriented capitalism and liberal democracy but towards everything that Uribe stands for, especially his strong alliance with the United States and his backing of Plan Colombia.  Chavez has been underestimated on many accounts and tends to be cleverer than competitors and opponents assumed.  It is clear to many observers that while Chavez’s short term goal is to elevate his image in the eyes of his countrymen, his overall aim is to strengthen the FARC and to weaken the Uribe government.  The mediation might deliver a two-edged result; getting a favorable hostage deal for the government – difficult to reject – but providing the FARC an urgently needed breathing space for rearmament in a demilitarized zone. After all, the Colombian move has been an official invitation to mingle in Colombian affairs and might bear more risks than are now perceived.

 

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