January 23, 2008

Colombia: the Consequences of Hostages' Release and the Future of Negotiations

A few days after the release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzales, the climate of cooperation produced by the negotiations seems to be already over; once again, Latin America finds itself divided into several different positions, missing the opportunity to demonstrate itself as a region capable of negotiate consistently with outside countries and risking a compromise of future negotiations with FARC.

Lucia Conti

Equilibri.net (23 January 2008)

The Release and Hugo Chavez's Proposal

The release of Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzales de Perdomo, hostages of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) for more than 5 years, rather than confirming the success of Latin American cooperation, exacerbated old hostilities and led to new tensions among the many countries involved in negotiations.

The moment of gratification having past - which briefly reflected its lustre onto Hugo Chavez but were now dimmed by the defeat of the internal constitutional referendum and by suspected monopolistic intentions with regard to MERCOSUR (Southern Common Market) - the policies suggested and undertaken by the Miraflores Palace caused new divisions.The President proposed to the surrounding states, to the USA and the EU to remove the guerrillas from the list of terrorist organizations (initially listed there at Columbia's initiative) and to classify them, instead, as "belligerents". The change of categorization would require the submission of FARC to the Geneva Convention, thus prohibiting them by international law from utilizing abduction and terrorist strategies.

However, the reaction of those nations have been totally ignored: like the European Union, that, beyond the formal technicality (the request was denied from each of the 27 member states), emphasized that the guerrilla organization hadn't demonstrated any intention of changing its modus operandi, but rather continued to commit "crimes against humanity", Washington has also entirely rejected this option. For these reasons, the proposal was rejected. But the main consequences took place in South America, where the debate had the effect of changing supposed well-established equilibrium: thus Caracas exceeded the foreseen loss of support of Colombia, becoming distanced also from Argentina and Ecuador, traditionally allies of the Miraflores Palace. Even Lula rejected the proposal, further deteriorating relations with Venezuela that had already been compromised by the competition for leadership and divergent policies.
The Disintegration of Cooperation in South America

Relations between Colombia and Venezuela have been seriously compromised since the beginning of Uribe's legislation, which is diametrically opposed at the political level to Hugo Chávez, so that mutual accusations have not been wanting during these years of “co-existence”. On one hand, Bogotá blames Caracas of subsidizing FARC guerrillas, allowing them to transport into Venezuela drugs produced in Colombia, and whose proceeds are needed to finance the military apparatus itself. Moreover, the government points the finger at Venezuelan Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, coordinator in 2002 of the “Frontera” agreement which allowed soldiers to buy and stock medicines along the border provided that additional Venezuelans were not abducted, and that remains today the main way of communication with FARC. In the long term, it is suspected that in 2010, during the pre-election period in Columbia, Chavez will support the line of opposition, in which will undoubtedly be found the guerrilla organization.

The Venezuelan Head of State replies harshly to those statements, accusing Uribe – supported by the USA, which would profit from a constant military presence in South America – of disinterest in finding a real solution to the civil war that, due the geographicproximity, involves his country too. The tone of the accusations become progressively heightened until, finally, Chávez publicly accused Washington and Bogotá of preparing an attack against Venezuela. Even Argentina and the other countries involved in the unsuccessful Operation Emmanuel criticized Uribe when, in December, it emerged that the son of Carla Rojas, believed to be imprisoned by FARC, was instead found in a childcare centre. The President is suspected to have already possessed the intelligence for more than a month, and is suspected to have attempted to discredit the guerrilla without considering the other nation's effort to free the child.Similar complaints were raised when, just a few days before the two prisoners' release, the Colombian army carried out drills and installed guards in the area where the exchange was to take place, thus violating previous agreements.
Effects on the Region and on Future Negotiations

What seemed to be a great regional success, in few days, had become a source of disagreement, at the expense of both Chavez and Uribe’s reputations, the Heads of State directly involved. The first obtained from Parliament the approval of a law to consider the FARC belligerent, with the certainty that it would facilitate future negotiations with the guerrillas, that, immediately following the release, expressed their thanks to Caracas for the commitment on their behalf. This firm position, however, further isolates Venezuela even from some “historical” allies: Argentina, already approaching Brazil with the new administration under Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and Ecuador, with which there was recently friction regarding the possible abandonment of the dollar as the currency of reference, even if Rafael Correa, President of a “dollarised” country, rejected this hypothesis.The already fluid Latin American setting, in which political divergences and different economic guidelines complicate the process of regional unification, has therefore been weakened, rather than strengthened, by recent events in Colombia. The latter, though obtaining support for his opposition to Caracas' “soft” approach following the Emmanuel Operation is considered with distrust, to say the least, in relation to the transparency of the information held by Bogotá. Additionally, this fragmentation will have important repercussions on future negotiations as well.

Few days after the release of the two prisoners, in the Chocò region, a FARC commando kidnapped six Colombian tourists, claiming responsibility for the act and outlining the conditions for a new exchange. In response to the release of 500 detained guerrillas, two of which are now extradited in the USA, they would release 50 hostages, among whom should be present Ingrid Betancourt. If, then, the government would demilitarize the Pradera and Florida areas, release negotiations for additional hostages (estimated at about 750 persons) would follow.

In the meantime, world diplomats are keeping busy: first, in France, whose Foreign Minister Bernard Koukner will travel to Bogotá to meet Uribe, and the United States, from which will depart a delegation of three democratic deputies (James McGovern, George Miller, Bill Delahunt). They will meet with the President in an attempt to coordinate with the executive the conditions for the release of the three US hostages retained by the FARC.Chavez, for his part, continues to present himself as interlocutor for the organization, taking advantage of the new status conceded the organization, while Bogotá, rather, distances himself. The risk is that the FARC has found itself to be dealing in different “contests” whose interlocutors do not always coincide with political lines.

It would be important for Uribe to achieve a pivotal position and to appeal to different delegates in order to arrange a univocal strategy, but it is certain that, where he is concerned, he prefers a solution that will lead to the surrender of the FARC. The “military strategy”, thanks also to supplies furnished for the Colombia Plan, has always been the primary choice, and only in recent months has the government agreed to have a dialogue in order to proceed with the release of the first hostages. For this reason, it will be difficult for the Colombian President to organize a table of common negotiations; on the other hand, the fact that the hostages are of diverse nationalities plays out in their favour, bringing the focus of negotiations to the release of their countrymen.


There are two obvious outcomes produced by the development of events concerning Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzales de Perdomo; first, after a fleeting initial rebound, the new loss of support for Hugo Chavez moved him from the role of skilful mediator to that of suspected supporter of the FARC, despite his numerous denials of this fact. Additionally, Latin America demonstrated that it is not yet sufficiently cohesive to move ahead with a common foreign policy: partly because of non-shared positions of Caracas, but also because of the distrust towards Bogotá and the habitual political national differences that relentlessly affect the area, even when trying to involve “thirds” actors.

Finally, release negotiation proceedings will not follow a linear course, even when faced with the prospect of release, and will, additionally, depend on at least three variables:

First of all, the partisans' desire to remain unmoved from their positions and the conditions imposed until now, that will be hardly accepted by Uribe's Government. The years of military operations have surely marked the organization that, from the logistical point of view, finds itself weakened with respect to some years ago. Consequently, they are now not in a condition to submitting precise “condicio sine qua non”, but it will be difficult to release a hostage with as wide visibility as Ingrid Betancourt without some wide concession.

Secondly, much will depend upon the President's willingness to proceed with talks, instead of re-undertaking the preferred "armed" solution in order to avoid, not only a violation of the release process, but also a worsening of violence in the territory.

Lastly, if the International Community, headed by Latin America delegations, intends to intervene, must establish a compact front, united in the negotiations, in order to maintain credibility and to prevent partisans from choosing the most “convenient” interlocutor with which to negotiate.

Translation by Elisa Frasca &Viviana Palermo

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