COLOMBIA: Chavez heads attempts to negotiate peace

The surprise decision in August by Colombian President Alavaro Uribe to allow the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to mediate in negotiations for a humanitarian exchange of 45 hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC — Colombia's largest guerrilla group), for 500 guerrilla insurgents held in Colombian jails, has given many Colombians hope that a humanitarian accord to swap prisoners could develop into broader and lasting peace negotiations that would put an end to more than 40 years of civil war.

One may wonder why the right-wing president of Colombia, long associated with Colombia's paramilitary death squads and drug cartels (in 1991 the US Defense Intelligence Agency classified Uribe as one of Colombia's top 100 drug traffickers), has invited the left-wing president of Venezuela, at the request of Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, to mediate negotiations with the FARC.

Uribe's motivations are multifaceted. Firstly, as James Brittain explains in a 2006 Colombia Journal Online article, the idea of a humanitarian accord and peace negotiations in Colombia becoming is increasingly popular, not only among peasants (who have borne the brunt of the war) and the urban working class, but also sectors of the Colombian elite who through successive "war taxes" have "come to pay increased costs associated with the civil war".

Uribe also desperately needs to rebuild political credibility. He faces an ongoing "para-politics" scandal that is engulfing his government, as well as recent criticisms of human rights violations in Colombia by some members of the US Congress. Uribe won his second presidential term in 2006 with the support of only 15.5% of the population (although he won 62% of the vote, only 25% of those eligible voted) in elections that were characterised by widespread fraud and intimidation.

The para-politics scandal erupted with allegations that paramilitary leaders in northern Colombia had worked to ensure the victory of pro-Uribe candidates in the March 2006 Congressional and municipal elections through violence, intimidation and fraud. At least 38 members of the Colombian Congress are being investigated by the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ) in relation to links with notorious right-wing paramilitary death squads, the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

Further fuelling the scandal is a rift that has developed between the Uribe administration and the AUC over the process of demobilising paramilitaries, which some argue is merely a "restructuring" and legalisation of the paramilitaries through their incorporation into the Peasant Soldier Program. The carefully-orchestrated process aiming to provide amnesty to the right-wing death squads has unravelled with the Constitutional Court ruling parts of the law relating to it unconstitutional. With the paramilitaries no longer guaranteed immunity, many of them have begun to reveal their ties to public officials in the hope of getting reduced sentences. It is estimated that at least 35% of the Colombian Congress has ties to the AUC.

Although the allegations have not yet touched Uribe personally, they are getting increasingly close to home. On September 25 the SCJ announced that it had proof linking Uribe's cousin Senator Mario Uribe to the AUC. Santiago Uribe, the presidents brother, has also been accused of leading an ultra-right paramilitary group.

Uribe also views negotiations as a mechanism to divide and put pressure on the left wing Polo Democratico, which emerged as the second largest political force in the last presidential elections. The PD is an extremely heterogeneous organisation, with a right wing that views any association with the FARC as political suicide, and a left wing that could conceivably support an alliance with the FARC in the lead up to the presidential elections in 2010.

However, Uribe's invitation to Chavez could backfire on Uribe and the Colombian elite. A September 20 article by Paul Haste posted on argues: "Not since his Colombian vice president, Francisco de Paula Santander, conspired to assassinate Caracas born Simon Bolivar in Bogota in 1828, has a Venezuelan so stirred political opinions and passions in its neighbour as President Hugo Chavez has done."

"In 2007, Colombians are once again contesting and debating a Venezuelan leader's ideas — this time, President Chavez's 'Bolivarian revolution' and his hope to reprise [Bolivar's] 'one America' dream", Haste added.

The September 30 editorial of the Colombian pro-government daily, El Tiempo argued that one of the "worrisome by-products" of the proposed negotiations is "how Hugo Chavez's popularity in Colombia has surged". An opinion piece in the August 27 El Espectador argued that "it is preferable that the war continues than Chavez be involved in Colombia's affairs".

Alfredo Rangel in the business magazine Cambio, wrote of Chavez: "Peace in Colombia will advance his ideas, and that would threaten our institutional stability and our conservative political culture'" According to Haste there is a growing Bolivarian movement in Colombia, inspired by the process of radical social change unfolding in neighboring Venezuela, spreading fear through the Colombian elites.

In the face of these concerns, and in order to maintain the upper hand in the negotiations, Uribe has insisted on broadening participation to include a US Congressional delegation in talks due to be held in Caracas between Chavez, Senator Cordoba and the FARC.

What is clear is that Uribe opposes any efforts towards a genuine peace that would address the underlying economic and social inequalities that are the roots of the civil war.

Chavez has been left with his hands tied as Uribe has repeatedly placed obstacles in the path of negotiations. Uribe has rejected proposals for a demilitarised zone demanded by the FARC to allow for the safe exchange of hostages. He flatly rejected the demand by the FARC that two guerrillas held in US prisons be included in the exchange. Uribe has also ruled out the possibility of Chavez being able to meet with the FARC on Colombian soil, while at the same time refusing to allow safe passage for FARC leaders to travel to Caracas.

With these blocks, can Chavez help facilitate a transition to peace in Colombia? An article posted on on September 7 by Carol Delgado Arria argues that "Chavez has the vision, moral authority, and persuasive capacity to open spaces in the debate in favor of a humanitarian accord that is seen as a step towards peace". However, she continues, "the main challenge is to ... help Colombia repose the issue of peace in a radical way, that is, in the sense of going to the roots of the violence".

On October 1 the FARC issued a call for a "grand national accord for peace", the convocation of a constituent assembly and a new government "that works for peace and social justice". While any such agreement under the Uribe administration is unimaginable it is possible the combination of the para-political scandal and the fact that Uribe cannot stand for reelection in 2010 could lead to PD wining the presidency.

Despite the fact that US imperialism does not want to lose control of its client state, which it views as an important counterweight and potential military launching pad against the growth of left-wing anti-imperialist governments and movements in the region, it isn't clear the US could prevent PD from coming to power. The desire of the majority of Colombians for a lasting and genuine peace, coupled with a continental shift to the left, makes uncertain the continued viability of the corrupt, militaristic narco-regime in Colombia.