Colombia: Chavez leads freeing of FARC-held prisoners

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez spearheaded the release of two prisoners held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — Colombia's largest left-wing guerrilla force that controls significant portions of the countryside — on January 10.

Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez, captive since 2002 and 2001 respectively, were handed over to a team headed by Venezuelan justice minister Ramon Rodriguez. The prisoners were reunited with ecstatic family members waiting in Caracas, according to a January 10 article.

Speaking to Chavez via phone on her release — screened live on Latin America-wide TV channel Telsur, Rojas declared: "Thank you, President Chavez, we are profoundly emotional … We are reborn."

The FARC had announced its willingness to hand prisoners directly to Venezuela in recognition of the efforts of the Chavez government to begin negotiations towards a peaceful solution to Colombia's over 40-year-long civil war. After weeks of manoeuvring to undermine the planned handover, it eventually occurred with the authorisation of the right-wing Colombian government of President Alvaro Uribe.

Chavez had originally been negotiating, along with Colombian Senator Cordoba Piedad, for a swap of 49 FARC-held prisoners for 500 FARC fighters currently in jail. However, under pressure from the US — which fears the growing influence of Chavez and his anti-imperialist project — Uribe scuttled these plans on November 21 using the excuse of a supposed breach of protocol by Chavez.

Colombia — which has one of the world's worst human rights records — is the US's closest ally in the region in a context of increasing US isolation in Latin America. Colombia is the largest recipient of US military aid in the region and the US military presence could be threatened if peace broke out, as would the role of Colombia's infamous death squads and repressive state apparatus.

Chavez accused Uribe of deliberately blocking moves towards peace and threatened to cut all trade ties with Colombia, which exports US$4 million worth of goods to Venezuela each year. The FARC subsequently offered its unilateral handover of Rojas and Gonzalez as a sign of good faith.

Chavez indicated his commitment to freeing the remaining hostages, saying on January 10, "I plan to continue to work for the release of all the hostages". Chavez also stated that in this way, Venezuelans "are sending our heart to Colombia, Venezuela without Colombia is not complete, Colombia without Venezuela is not complete … Venezuela will continue opening paths towards peace in Colombia."

The US government, while publicly welcoming the release of the prisoners, has refused to acknowledge Chavez's central role, instead congratulating Uribe — who did all he could to stop it. Speaking to the press on January 10, US State Department spokesperson Tom Casey praised "the leadership of President Uribe, in terms of trying to secure the release of these hostages …". When repeatedly pressed on Chavez's role, Casey grudgingly stated that "anybody, including President Chavez" who "supports President Uribe and the Colombian government's efforts is to be welcomed".

According to a January 15 article, Chavez reiterated his belief that there is no military solution to the conflict in Colombia, calling for international mediation to seek peace.

Chavez insisted that the FARC and the second largest Colombian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), should not be considered "any terrorist body, they are real armies that occupy territory in Colombia; they must be recognised, they are insurgent forces that have a real political project, a Bolivarian project, which here is respected".

According to a January 19 article by Kiraz Janicke, the Venezuelan National Assembly voted to confer "belligerent" status to the FARC and ELN, and reject the "unilateral lists imposed by the government of the United States" which classifies them as "terrorist organisations".

Chavez's comments have sparked new conflict between Colombia and Venezuela, with Uribe accusing Chavez of supporting "terrorists". The US has accused Chavez of seeking to destablise Colombia.

Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said on January 19 that any mediating role by Chavez is "totally finished". Associated Press reported on January 18 that a statement by the Venezuelan foreign ministry argued: "The Colombian government has reached the extreme of obstructing and sabotaging the humanitarian missions led by the international community, putting the lives of innocent people at risk."