Uribe, Chavez, and FARC
(International Relations and Security Network, 12/09/2007)
During his weekly radio address on 9 September, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he would go to the deepest reaches of the Colombian jungle to meet with leaders of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to obtain a humanitarian hostage exchange agreement. The following day, the Colombian government announced it would not risk such a visit, slowing the momentum of what many claim to be a promising move toward peace between FARC and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Since Uribe has allowed Chavez to become a facilitator for peace talks, he has certainly given FARC what it wants; an international political voice.
It is not likely that Chavez will secure the freedom of FARC's hostages, but the current process has brought Chavez and Uribe closer than they have ever been - a positive development for the future of Colombian-Venezuelan relations that gives Uribe much needed political space to pursue his own design for the destruction of the leftist group.
Almost all agree that Chavez is at his best on the international circuit; meeting, greeting, telling jokes and extending impromptu meetings long into the night. When Chavez arrived in Colombia on 31 August - shortly after Uribe's invitation to discuss a humanitarian hostage exchange - Chavez jumped at the chance to facilitate. Colombian media reported he remained 12 hours longer than expected, discussing a range of topics including energy integration, Venezuela's re-introduction to the Community of Andean Nations and, of course, FARC.
Chavez has demonstrated traction with FARC, generating international speculation over his ability to dislodge the revolutionary army from its non-negotiable position. He claims to have recently received a letter from FARC leader Pedro Antonio Marin, also known as Manuel Marulanda, in which the aging guerrilla claimed he was not well enough to travel to Caracas and would rather Chavez travel to the Colombian jungle to meet with him. Barring such a visit, Marulanda would be willing to send a high-level FARC leader to Caracas to meet with Chavez.
Any FARC leader sent to Caracas would be a boon for Chavez's facilitator role, but it is doubtful if any movement on a hostage exchange would occur, at least not on Venezuelan soil as Chavez has offered.
Just days before Uribe met with Chavez, FARC's number two leader, Raul Reyes, told the Argentine daily El Clarin , "We think it is a beginning, a step forward [...] for a humanitarian exchange." But Reyes remained firm on FARC's clearly defined position that the exchange should happen on Colombian soil. "We maintain that the exchange, as a problem derived from an internal conflict, should be resolved inside Colombia." Reyes said.
As much as Reyes remains strong on his position, Uribe reflects the same level of stubbornness. He has publicly stated on many occasions that there would be no demilitarized zone inside Colombia.
Uribe, perhaps more quietly now, wishes to defeat FARC vis-à-vis a military solution. Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo implicitly agrees. Having lived with FARC for many years as a captive, Araujo claims the revolutionary group is "teasing Chavez," according to Venezuelan daily El Universal . He does admit that FARC listens attentively to Chavez's speeches and his weekly show. FARC has used Chavez to gain an international voice and some political space within Colombia, Araujo claims - perhaps Uribe's mistake according to some reports.
Uribe is no fool. He is willing to give some space to FARC to deflect media and public attention from dismal chances for a humanitarian exchange and ensured military confrontation. Certainly he is under pressure, at home and abroad, to come to some agreement for such an exchange, but Uribe remains confident a military solution is the only way to break FARC.
Colombian news magazine Semana underlined this very point in a 9 September article entitled, "Breaking Point?" Claiming that the jungle is no longer an iron curtain for FARC, Semana outlined how the Uribe administration had collaborated with international intelligence experts to leverage field reports into action, implemented by the latest technology. A recent case of surgical precision bombing in which one of FARC's most wanted leaders, Tomas Medina, also known as Negro Acacio, was killed, illustrates this argument.
Chavez may have a golden tongue, but Uribe has decided to let him wag it. Allowing Chavez and FARC some space to dance gives Uribe a reason to repair ties with Venezuela as well as relieve some of the pressure on his administration. In the end, however, Chavez will ultimately run into a wall and it will be the Colombian military, not Chavez, that forces FARC to budge - should it budge at all.