President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and the FARC have a special relationship, the nature of which is clear up to a certain point. Based on the success of the recently-suspended hostage release program, it’s practically certain that both sides have agreed on a long-term strategy that will reduce militarism and gradually decrease the net number of hostages in the FARC’s possession.
The FARC have an estimated 800 to 2800 hostages, depending on who is doing the estimation. Though the Colombian government would like us to believe there is a ratio of one hostage for every 3 or 4 rebels, the likelihood appears to be closer to 1:10. Whatever the true figure, these represent value to the FARC, and have traditionally been utilised either in swaps for rebels imprisoned by the Colombian state, or to extort ransom payments.
Alvaro Uribe’s Colombian government has no time for hostage/prisoner swaps, and aside from the FARC’s 40-odd “high value” hostages, the potential for monetary reward must dwarf in comparison to their gains from the cocaine trade. But since the arrival of the sympathetic Chavez government in neighbouring Venezuela, another possibility has arisen. The duo can now arrange unilateral hostage releases and simultaneously promote their general political cause (in the form of Chavez himself, who receives the hostages). The principal benefit, however, is that they can increasingly embarrass and undermine the hawks in the Colombian establishment.
Though there is a long way to go before Colombians vote for a resolute ally of Chavez, the aim is to split opinion between those who prefer never-ending militarism and those who prefer constructive dialogue. By demonstrating concrete results in the form of freed hostages, of which there will be many to come, it proves that dialogue is not only possible, but also desirable. By voluntarily releasing hostages, the FARC enhance their brand image, and by stepping down their militant efforts, Uribe’s “counterterrorism” prowess begins to lose its political value.
From the FARC’s perspective, a basic level of military resistance must be maintained, principally for self-defense, but also to demonstrate that the conflict will continue until Colombians elect a government which rejects the U.S. imperialist presence in Colombia, at the very least. Incidentally, the fact that overt militarism will hinder the new Chavez-FARC strategy is a strong indication that Chavez is not likely to be arming or funding them, as Colombia and the U.S. are eager to accuse.
So far we’ve had ample evidence that Uribe and the U.S. feel they must derail the new hostage release strategy at all costs: from mass anti-FARC/Chavez marches, to one documented attempt to sabotage a hostage release through surprise attacks, to the recent killing of FARC’s top hostage negotiator, and a campaign in the international media regarding Chavez’s alleged collaboration with the FARC’s military operations.
The hostage releases are a masterpiece in “asymmetric warfare” against the Colombian state and the U.S., because they involve zero violence and zero invasion of Colombian sovereignty. The overall strategy requires no funding of the FARC, and since it is entirely in their interests, it is highly unlikely they demand payment. In all probability, the freed hostages are to a large extent selected for their political damage quotient, based on what they are likely to say to the media, and especially with regard to any future political careers they might have.
Ingrid Betancourt is the hostage that everybody – including Chavez – most wishes to see released. Given her potential political future as a leftist Green who would represent an obvious choice for the poor majority in Colombia, the present government would undoubtedly prefer to see her remain in confinement. Since the next general election is set for May 2010, it is vaguely possible that she might be released as early as January 2009, though only after a consistent stream of other hostages have been released beforehand. On the other hand, it is more likely she would be retained so as to be the very last pawn, as unfortunate as that may be. After all, there are other significant leftist players in Colombia.
The overall hostage release strategy has been inconvenienced by the U.S./Colombian campaign to paint Chavez as a terrorist collaborator, though it is difficult to see how its eventual reinstatement can realistically be prevented. After all, Venezuela merely plays a detached role. It has been interesting to note that in quick succession, a fleet of U.S. warships has resumed patrols in the region, Colombian paramilitaries have crossed onto Venezuela territory, and a U.S. military plane flew directly through Venezuelan airspace “by accident”. It appears that warning signals are afoot, though the exact nature of the threat is uncertain.
The message, however, is crystal clear: don’t re-engage with the FARC. Does Chavez believe it might compromise the crucial gubernatorial elections this November, or even assist in securing key gubernatorial positions along the Colombian border? The ultimate decision may rest on time constraints and the medium-term strategy of the hostage release program, if they exist. The other obvious question is whether the U.S. and Colombia are as toothless as they appear at face value, and whether Chavez’s potential inclusion on a “terror list” will affect their capacity to subvert and destabilize Venezuela.
The U.S. already has a Miami court case (regarding the famous $800,000 suitcase) timed to cause maximum damage before November. Besides, the assortment of alleged FARC documents will no doubt emerge in a piecemeal fashion to weaken Chavez’s international image at the most useful moments. However, as well as holding the ultimate deterrent in the form of a potential oil shut-off, Chavez also has a more plausible power to limit the heavy flow of imports from Colombia to the extent he desires. Certainly, there are many economic interests that would have a word in Uribe’s ear before he did anything stupid.
Should Barack Obama win the U.S. presidency, Chavez’s designation on the “terror list” appears set to occur before he takes office. This would serve as an excuse for Obama to reject Chavez’s offer of dialogue, or alternatively a barrier preventing him from accepting it, depending on whether his campaign talk is just hot air or not. It would be futile to designate Chavez before Venezuela’s November elections, since one can guarantee he would speak of little else in his nationwide campaigning for his socialist candidates.
One has to remember that Uribe is simply the frontman for a wider establishment, and the hostage release strategy is similarly broad. It may be unlikely that significant political change could occur in Colombia by 2010, given Uribe’s popularity and the fact that he might still seek to run for a third term. However, other things are certain: as more hostages are released and Colombian politics remain unchanged, the country will become more isolated and the leading politicians more out of touch with reality. Given the increasing momentum of leftism and independence in the region, such an outcome will reach a critical point, and one hopes that Colombians will soon realise what the majority of Latin America already knows: Uribe’s ilk promise eventual peace and social justice, but have no intention of delivering either.