Uribe's Guessing Game

(International Relations and Security Network, 13/06/2007)


Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's decision earlier this month to release dozens of members of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from prison was met with bewilderment by the public and international observers alike.


Such a unilateral prisoner release runs counter to Uribe’s domestic security policy and statements made in the past that clearly underline his desire to eradicate the FARC before the end of his second term in 2010.


It is unclear what Uribe was hoping to get in return for the release. Only days after his statement, on 12 June, Raul Reyes, the man who speaks for FARC, made it clear the group would not reciprocate by releasing kidnapped Colombians, including former senator Ingrid Betancourt, and Americans.


Instead, many observers believe that a prisoner exchange was not Uribe's plan and that his real intention was to improve his image with key political leaders in Washington.


US Democratic leaders have been quick to chastise Uribe about human rights. And a Congressional sub-committee found it fitting to reduce US grants to Colombia by at least 10 percent, with a significant shift of funding from military-related expenditure to economic development. The final version of this bill currently awaits approval.


Taking yet another step away from supporting Uribe, the US Congress appears to be against ratifying the Free Trade Agreement the two sides have already negotiated.


With such losses mounting up, Uribe traveled to Washington on 6 June, his second trip in under a month. Such unprecedented lobbying, some observers point out, "smacks of desperation."


According to Reyes, FARC did not engage the Colombian government hoping for a prisoner exchange, nor are there plans for peace talks.


FARC's willingness to engage in a prisoner swap remains contingent upon the formation of a demilitarized zone in the southwestern corner of Valle de Cauca department, a strip of land nearly half the size of greater London. Uribe, who has campaigned against the formation of any demilitarized zone, is not in a position to grant FARC's one and oft-repeated condition that must be met before peace talks or prisoner exchanges occur.


Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a fast and firm hold of Paris' negotiating leverage in Colombia.


Ingrid Betancourt, a French and Colombian citizen who was kidnapped by FARC while running for president in Colombia in 2002, remains a minor political point in Colombia. But in France she is an icon. Sarkozy has already invited her children to the presidential palace twice and hoped to score a quick triumph in Colombia by urging Uribe to release Rodrigo Granda, who Sarkozy thought would negotiate a prisoner exchange between Uribe and Reyes.


Granda, however, would have none of it. Upon his release, he reiterated FARC's demands, saying he would wait for instruction from the FARC secretariat before assisting with any negotiations.


So far, Sarkozy has made little headway, perhaps little more than Uribe, who by now has realized the climate in Washington is a bit more hostile. He will have to dance to a new tune before receiving the money he is so used to spending.


Uribe has trumpeted a mixed message to Washington. On one hand, he is asking for sustained or perhaps increased grants to assist the Colombian military's battle against FARC. On the other hand, he is releasing FARC prisoners in a move that suggests he is seeking to score human rights points.


Did Uribe share with Democrats in Washington the news that the FARC kidnapped a policeman on 5 July to replace the one who escaped weeks ago? Perhaps he also glossed over the 10 June news about two drunken soldiers who killed six civilians while absent without leave in Caquetá.


Still, Uribe is no fool, and has likely examined all the angles. He has fought long and hard to make Colombia a safer place, using over US$600 million in military and police aid in 2006 and similar amounts in previous years.


It is clear, however, that the days of easy money are over. Uribe must prove he can beat FARC without threatening human rights to keep the Democrats happy. Perhaps this is what he was hoping to do with the release of FARC prisoners. However, if that is the case, the message is not a clear one and has left his financiers guessing and the public baffled.

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