“Sadly our children, our loved ones, are there in the forests, and we are in the middle of this political game between the government and the FARC,” said Gustavo Moncayo, a primary schoolteacher in Colombia, on Aug. 2. Moncayo, nicknamed “the Professor,” was lecturing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in Bogota’s Plaza Bolivar.

For 46 days the Professor walked 800 miles from his home close to the Ecuadorian border to demand the government negotiate with leftist guerillas to secure the release of his son Pablo. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has held his son, a former police official, captive for almost 10 years.

Along the way, thousands listened to the Professor’s story. He plans to camp out in the plaza until his son and 45 other hostages are freed, many of them former army, police and political officials. He is well on his way to securing 2 million signatures on a petition calling for a humanitarian prisoner exchange.

The issue returned to the fore after June 18, when 11 FARC-held prisoners were killed, some say in the wake of a government military rescue attempt. For the next two weeks, 3 million Colombians marched and demonstrated. Many claimed to be repudiating the murder or disappearance of 30,000 Colombians, the kidnapping of over 5,000, and the displacement of 3 million people in the course of a four-decades-long civil war.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez promised to advocate for a humanitarian exchange at a meeting with President Uribe in Bogota set for Aug. 31. He was recruited as a mediator, with Uribe’s assent, on Aug. 5 by leftist Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, who was attending the 6th Caracas Social Congress. She will confer with FARC leaders, who have already turned down a proposal to release prisoners on Venezuelan territory.

France, Switzerland and Spain have offered support for a humanitarian exchange. President Chavez is seeking aid from the governments of Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Meanwhile, Agricultural Minister Andres Felipe Arias was telling audiences throughout Colombia that Uribe rejects the FARC’s primary demand that the government demilitarize the municipalities of Florida and Pradera in the agriculturally rich state of Valle de Cauca for 45 days before prisoner exchange talks can begin.

Uribe has also demanded that any of the 400 FARC prisoners released by his government must give up their lives as insurgents. Encountering the Professor, he relented only by agreeing to demilitarize some unspecified area for 90 days should the FARC release prisoners.

Critics have accused the Uribe government of relying exclusively on military rescues of prisoners, so-called “blood and fire.” They point to hostages killed and wounded during government attacks on FARC compounds. Hostage families support a humanitarian exchange, and representatives of 14 families met with President Chavez in Caracas on Aug. 21.

The bloody outcome of an October 2006 attack that wounded 23 bystanders at a Bogota military college worries humanitarian exchange partisans. Blaming the attack on the FARC, Uribe abruptly ended prisoner exchange negotiations that seemed headed for success. Critics say the melee was staged as a pretext.

Government opponents highlight the Colombian army’s collaboration with U.S. military contractors and with right-wing paramilitary groups in mounting attacks, even rescue attempts, on guerrilla installations.

Analysts say mutual intransigence is a legacy of lost hope stemming from many years of deaths, disappearances and displaced populations. The FARC experiment in the 1980s of entering electoral politics through its Patriotic Alliance resulted in thousands of its candidates being murdered by the state and by right-wing paramilitaries. Recent revelations that government officialdom has been deeply penetrated by paramilitary and drug trafficking groups have done little to restore confidence.

Interviewed by El Tiempo, Communist Party leader Carlos Lozano, director of the Voz newspaper, explained that negotiations for overall peace are now a distant dream. Yet he sees discussions over a humanitarian exchange as a realizable goal, potentially useful if the guerrillas can be brought into the world of collaborative, democratic politics.

Lozano suggests that solutions for the present impasse are political, not military. For guerrillas, he said, work on humanitarian exchange is a ticket of admission into a sustainable political life. Support by left parties, his own included, for the Alternative Democratic Pole exemplifies acceptance and participation within that arena. The opposition coalition is now electioneering to win local elections in October and is preparing for general elections in 2010.

atwhit @megalink.net