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Chavez Changes His Tune

Why has Venezuela's strongman done a sudden about-face regarding the Colombian guerrilla group FARC? And why now?

by
Daniel Duquenal

Bio

June 11, 2008 - 12:30 am

The big news in Colombia this week was the apparent change of heart that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has had about the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army: the Marxist guerrilla group known in the region as the FARC.

During his marathon Sunday show, Alo Presidente Chavez demanded that FARC release all of its hostages without receiving anything in return. But that was not all; he added that guerrilla warfare had no place in Latin America anymore, now that leftist governments could now rise to power through elections — and went still further, charging that FARC had become the perfect excuse for the U.S. to keep intervening in Latin America.

Let’s first congratulate ourselves for finally hearing Hugo Chavez shift to the right track on this issue. It is no secret that FARC ceased to be a political insurrection long ago. Instead, it is a loyal partner for drug traffickers in Colombia and a perpetrator of many other crimes – among them the hostage and ransom industry that targets innocent citizens.

At the same time, we should not forget that over his long tenure Hugo Chavez has often professed support for FARC, going as far as asking that the FARC be removed from terrorism lists and should no longer be considered a belligerent force, a position he took as recently as his January State of the Nation address. Evidence of Chavez administration sympathy for FARC is extensive – from FARC leaders living in Venezuela undisturbed (Rodrigo Granda, for example) to the direct vocal support by the interior minister for a FARC guerrilla who accompanied hostages the group released last January. Evidence of material help from Venezuela was undeniable when the Raul Reyes guerilla camp was bombarded inside Ecuador and the militant leaders’ laptops were seized during the raid. Since then the content of the laptops and other devices has been hanging like a Sword of Damocles over Hugo Chavez, even more so once Interpol certified that the laptops had not been tampered with.

The pro-FARC sympathy of Chavez has long been playing havoc with his international image. But what made it worse is that apparently Chavez had bet on the wrong horse: ever since Alvaro Uribe reached power in Colombia he has been able to slowly but surely dismantle the worst of the paramilitary groups while waging a full-fledged internal war against FARC. The results are for all to see: more and more of the countryside in Colombia is now accessible to its citizens, the economy has been growing at a steady pace, and desertion from the FARC and the paramilitary continue at a fast clip. In short, every day the FARC is increasingly confined to remote areas of the country, and its image within Colombia is at an all-time low, even in popular sectors of the country. FARC seem to be losing their war.

The death of the historic leader of the FARC, a “sureshot” named Marulanda, must have been the latest and most terrible blow to the organization. FARC claims that he died of a heart attack. They broadcast the news in a suspicious video that now is claimed to have been orchestrated with help (via Telesur?) in a “foreign place” (Venezuela?) according to Uribe himself. As far as Colombia is concerned, Marulanda was killed during a successful raid against some of the FARC hideouts. That FARC does not offer a way to verify where Marulanda is buried seems to confirm that.

It is clear there is distress reigning today inside the FARC camp and its very compromised major supporters in the higher governmental echelons of Venezuela.

So certainly Chavez must have been looking for ways to extricate himself from a situation that could see him accused in front of international tribunals by the time Colombia releases all the evidence from the Raul Reyes laptops. His need to change course was probably accelerated when last week Venezuelan army personnel were caught in Colombia selling bullets to FARC. It cannot be ruled out that they were acting as free agents, given the corruption and laxity that now are a way of life inside Venezuela, but on the other hand, it may have had a government wink and nod.

This background helps explain the reasons behind Chavez’s dramatic change of position Sunday. With FARC on an accelerating decline and with serious threats to his own personal standing, Chavez felt that he had to offer a dramatic gesture, cutting his losses.

What better gesture than to renounce FARC? The advantages for both Chavez and for FARC are many. If FARC respondes positively to Chavez’s call and cooperates, that will put a stop for the time being on any prosecution against Chavez from the Colombian government. Chavez not only recovers a lot of his international image, but gains several months of respite as hostages are released and peace talks begin. If the process succeeds, he can even hope that a grateful Colombia at peace will renounce prosecuting him no matter what evidence they have.

The FARC also will win. As it now stands cornered — losing leaders and men much faster than can be replenished, with its remaining leaders aging and likely tired of years in the jungle, with the prospect of many more years until things get better — the temptation must be great to make a disguised surrender under the protection of Chavez.

Nobody will object if Chavez discretely finances the retooling of the FARC leadership into a new leftist political group to run in the Colombian arena. The most criminal leaders of the FARC, those that cannot be forgiven, can still find exile in France as long as they free Ingrid Betancourt before she dies in captivity.

Finally Uribe and his government have already won so much that they cannot be damaged by such a happy ending. They will have to share some of the glory of achieving peace with Chavez and the FARC, but everybody will know that this point would have never been reached had it not been for the persistence of Uribe’s actions against the FARC and his strategy to unmask its supporters.

The only problem for Uribe is that peace and freedom for hostages could play against a constitutional change that some of his supporters are seeking, to allow him a third term. If Uribe is the great man he wants us to believe he is, he will not have any problem giving up a third term, since his chosen successor would very likely win the next election.

So the big question that remains to be answered is whether the FARC will go along with Chavez. Right now, we do not know if Chavez came up with that proposal alone or together with the new FARC leadership. If it is the latter, then peace in Colombia is suddenly a bright possibility.

However, if Chavez is trying to impose his will on the FARC to save his own skin, it is far less likely to work. After all, such a sudden reversal looks more like a last-minute salvaging operation than well-thought long-term strategy.

There is enough heat at home requiring Chavez’s attention for him to seek dousing a few fires elsewhere. Chavez has critical local elections to face next November and the polls are not good. This is certainly part of the reason behind his petition to FARC, as he realizes they are an expiring albatross.

Conceivably we can hope that FARC, feeling that the end is near and that without the backing of Chavez their end will get closer, will comply or at least accept to wait for Chavez’s better days. But can the FARC wait that long?

Daniel Duquenal is a Pajamas correspondent in Venezuela and writes his blog Venezuela News and Views.
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