Amid recriminations and hyperbole, Venezuela-Colombia relations have deteriorated following Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s suspension of negotiations toward an exchange of 500 imprisoned combatants of the Revolutionary Army Forces of Colombia (FARC) for 45 prisoners held by the FARC, the left-wing guerrilla movement that has been fighting conservative Colombian governments since 1964.
Uribe’s spokesperson announced late Nov. 21 that Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba had lost the mandate Uribe had given her three months earlier to facilitate the negotiations. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had been serving as mediator, was simultaneously dismissed. Uribe’s action came shortly after U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield criticized the negotiation process.
The trouble arose after Chavez supposedly violated Uribe’s ban on direct contacts with Colombian officials. According to reports, Cordoba was conferring by telephone with Mario Montoya, head of the Colombian armed forces, from Caracas, Venezuela, earlier that day when she handed the telephone to Chavez, whose conversation with the general lasted 30 seconds. Montoya was asked about the number of soldiers and police held by the FARC.
Foot-dragging by Uribe had already been apparent. The Colombian president recently accused FARC leaders of currying international favor. FARC leader Manuel Marulanda was forbidden to meet with Chavez, on pain of death, if he surfaced in Caracas. Later, Uribe agreed to such a meeting only if the FARC released prisoners beforehand.
For weeks the media had covered agitation for a humanitarian exchange from highly placed families of prisoners and hostages held by the FARC, including the families of three captured U.S. “drug war” mercenaries, and the family of Ingrid Betancourt, citizen of Colombia and France, whom the FARC seized during her 2002 presidential run.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy had discussed an exchange with Chavez in Paris the day before the process was ended. He spoke out for restarting negotiations, suggesting that “President Chavez is the best chance of securing the release of Ingrid Betancourt and all the other hostages.”
Colombian governments have long favored attempts at military rescue of the FARC’s prisoners over their negotiated release. Political opponents and hostage families have rejected what they call Uribe’s preference for “blood and fire” tactics. In 2005, talks on a humanitarian exchange ended abruptly following a shoot-out at a Bogota military academy. The shoot-out was widely believed to have been staged by the government.
The left coalition Alternative Democratic Pole joined opposition parties in denouncing Uribe’s action and attributing the government’s “warlike posture” to dependence on the “North American empire.” Washington’s Plan Colombia “delivers $2.5 million daily to the armed forces, more than Colombians themselves pay through war taxes,” according to a statement.
President Chavez responded to Uribe’s action initially on television by announcing that Venezuela “will be revising bilateral relations with Colombia,” adding that his “good faith has been betrayed.” In Colombia, he claimed, “the extreme right defends the idea they are going to finish with the guerrillas. It’s impossible.” Chavez saw Uribe as subservient to high military commanders and wealthy oligarchs.
Rhetoric has flourished since then with bite, color and serious import. “I’m putting relations with Colombia in the freezer,” Chavez said Nov. 25. He said he has “lost confidence with everyone in the Colombian government.” As far as reconciliation goes, “It’s impossible.”
Within hours, Uribe embellished a scheduled speech with charges that Chavez is “spreading an expansionist project on the continent” and desires “Colombia [to] be a victim of a terrorist government of the FARC.” He associated Chavez with “people who legitimize terrorism.”
In a television interview the next morning, Chavez accused the Colombian president of lying, adding, “We’ll have to wait for a new government in Colombia we can talk with. … I hope it arrives sooner than later.”
Chavez suggested that the controversy serves as a “smoke screen” for Uribe to obscure the scandals he faces over right-wing paramilitary infiltration of his government, epitomized by Chavez’s recent telephone partner. According to the Los Angeles Times, Gen. Montoya is a longtime practitioner of joint army-paramilitary operations against left-wing insurgents. Such operations are notorious for causing civilian deaths.
At the recent Ibero-American Summit in Chile, Uribe denied Chavez’s request to talk with Colombian military officers. “Don’t speak to my generals,” he joked. “You’ll return them to me as Chavistas.” Montoya was an unlikely candidate for conversion.
Meanwhile, Colombia’s Supreme Court is preparing to consider treason charges directed at Sen. Piedad Cordoba. The French government has offered her political asylum.