In the ongoing saga between Venezuelan despot President Hugo Chavez and Colombian democratic President Alvaro Uribe, Chavez for the moment appears to have the upper hand. He basks in the glow of – finally – securing the release of two female hostages from the narco-trafficking and kidnapping terrorist FARC [the Spanish abbreviation of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] organization.
However, analysts in Caracas and Bogota, the countries’ capitals, are betting Chavez has overplayed his hand and that Uribe will prevail not only against his Venezuelan nemesis but also in his war of attrition against Colombia’s guerrilla gangs.
Uribe ended 2007 with the powerful revelation that one reason FARC’s once bruited, oft delayed Christmas release of three hostages had not taken place was that Emmanuel – born in captivity – was in fact already in a Bogota foster home. Undoubtedly under great pressure from an embarrassed Chavez, the release of the two ladies, both prominent politicians and one Emmanuel’s mother, ultimately took place this past week.
The cracks in the Chavez – FARC peace façade are already appearing: less than 72 hours following the two ladies’ release, FARC gunmen kidnapped six others from a beach on Colombia’s Pacific coast.
At the same time, Chavez’s plea for FARC and ELN, the two leading guerrilla groups, to no longer be called “terrorists” but belligerent combatants was rejected out of hand, not just in Bogota and Washington but also by the European Union, indicating how low the once romanticized revolutionary “freedom fighters” have fallen.
Leftist Colombian political figures are separating themselves from Chavez’s attempt to legitimize the FARC. Carlos Gaviria, head of the far left Polo Democratico party, as well as Senator Gustavo Petro, a Polo Democratico leader and close friend of Chavez, have both deplored the Venezuelan’s call to end the guerrillas’ terrorist designation.
All sides are holding Afro-Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba accountable for her ardent support of Chavez and, implicitly, the FARC. A prime factor: several weeks ago, more than five million citizens marched in the streets of the country’s main cities, demanding that the kidnapping stop and those held be released.
The Chavez-FARC alliance is not new. The FARC has enjoyed safe haven basing rights in the western jungles bordering Colombia for its troops and safe houses in Caracas for its leaders for many years. More recently, Venezuelan authorities have enabled some 300 tons annually of Colombian cocaine through the country for re-export to Europe and the U.S. – a highly profitable arrangement for both FARC and Chavez.
As important, there are strong indications that significant amounts of Russian arms purchased by Venezuela are being transshipped to FARC camps for use in their “liberation movement”.
Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe seeks to implement a multi-faceted effort to free more hostages and to strengthen his country’s anti-guerrilla position:
- Surprisingly, Uribe has acquiesced in Hugo Chavez serving as a clearly biased “mediator” in hostage relief efforts. With more than 700 hostages, results to date are miniscule, but every release or escape is widely welcomed by the Colombian people, whatever the reason.
- A strong government effort to win over guerrillas has been spectacularly successful, especially with the ELN, the second most powerful terror organization. Inducements to lay down their arms include cash as well as technical training programs sponsored by America’s Plan Colombia.
- Simultaneously, Colombian military efforts to eliminate guerrilla leaders and encampments are steadily progressing.
- Critical to the Colombian strategy is approval by the U.S. Congress of the pending free trade agreement. To date, Democrats and their labor union allies have offered multiple excuses for holding the agreement hostage [big labor has committed to spending $200 million in support of Democrats during the 2008 election cycle].
In an effort to offset the pull of American labor bosses, Colombia has shown several Congressional delegations the results of the Uribe administration’s ongoing efforts to curb violence, quell the narcotics trade and curtail what have always been minimal human rights abuses.
Unfortunately, the latest group of Washington travelers ended their visit with a carefully balanced pair of utterances. Representative James McGovern [D-Massachusetts] earned positive points by demurring from Chavez’s call for Colombia’s guerrilla groups to be legitimized as belligerents.
However, Rep. George Miller [D-California], chairman of the House Education & Labor Committee, said it was not an appropriate time to take up the free trade agreement, because of “new realities” facing the U.S. economy, including rising unemployment and recession fears. Sadly, Miller ignored the economy-strengthening fact that the FTA allows more than 90 percent of American products and services duty free status, which combined with the undervalued dollar provides significant export growth potential. This was the Democrats’ fifth rationale for refusing to take up the bilateral trade deal since its agreement by both parties in late 2006.
Such a position is extraordinarily frustrating to Colombians in and out of government, because very few of the country’s existing and prospective exports – key among them coffee and fresh flowers – prove a threat to U.S. producers. That said, encouraging legitimate agricultural exports is a strong means of discouraging farmers from cultivating the coca plant, the source of 90 percent of the world’s cocaine.
Given a little help from its friend to the north, Colombia has a very good chance of achieving the Uribe government’s ambitious plans. Despite Hugo Chavez’s current coup in the freeing of two FARC hostages, it can be hoped that truly bipartisan Congressional consideration of the free trade agreement will result in its passage, to the benefit of both countries and a particular boon to efforts to stabilize Colombia.