Relations between Venezuela and Colombia Frozen after Colombian Government Cuts off Hostage Negotiations

Article excerpt

Colombia-Venezuela relations have broken down after Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe removed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez from the effort to negotiate with the Fuerza Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) for the release of hostages. Family members of hostages and international governments had praised introducing Chavez as a mediator in the talks with the FARC as the best chance for a settlement of the hostage situation in years, but, three months after Chavez began talks, the right-wing Uribe government cut them off. Chavez, in return, froze all diplomatic relations with Colombia, leading to the worst state of bilateral affairs between the neighboring countries in decades.

Chavez mediation over just three months after it began

The Uribe government has long rejected FARC terms for a humanitarian exchange of captives. For his five years in office, Uribe has denied FARC demands for the release of about 500 FARC prisoners in exchange for dozens of hostages in FARC hands, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three US military contractors. He has also refused to create a demilitarized zone, saying the FARC would use it as a base for building up its strength as it did in prior negotiations.

The Uribe government has endorsed the use of military rescues, while family members of hostages generally reject that option, citing the likelihood that FARC guerrillas will execute captives or they will be killed in the crossfire. Gustavo Moncayo, the father of a kidnapped soldier, became a nationally and internationally known figure after conducting a foot trek across half the country to expose "the government's lies" and pressure Uribe to conduct negotiations (see NotiSur, 2007-08-10).

In August, Uribe said he was willing to create a safe zone for a period of 90 days in which FARC and government delegates could meet. He also promised to release all FARC prisoners who vowed not take up arms again. In return, he demanded the rebels free all their hostages.

The FARC response was, "It is clear now that there will not be a humanitarian exchange with Mr. Uribe's government." The FARC called for a demilitarized zone, which is different from a safe zone, and it wants the prisoners freed without any conditions.

In September, Uribe allowed Chavez to begin conducting high-level talks with the rebels to pursue a humanitarian exchange (see NotiSur, 2007-09-14). The invitation came about a month before regional elections in Colombia (see NotiSur, 2007-11-09). Chavez was invited along with Colombian opposition Sen. Piedad Cordoba to mediate in the hostage crisis.

But on Nov. 19, Colombia gave Chavez until Dec. 31 to broker a deal on a swap of hostages for rebel prisoners. Two days later it cut off Chavez's role in negotiations. A Colombian presidential spokesperson said on Nov. 22 that Chavez had broken an agreement not to speak directly to Colombia's Army chiefs about the hostages issue.

Uribe´s office said in a statement that Sen. Cordoba had telephoned Colombian Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya and then passed the phone to Chavez. The statement said Uribe previously had made it clear to Chavez that he was opposed to the Venezuelan leader being in direct communication with Colombia's military chiefs. As a result, the facilitation efforts of Sen. Cordoba and President Chavez had been "terminated."

The BBC interpreted the sudden announcement that Chavez's efforts were being halted as a clear indication the Colombian president had lost patience with his Venezuelan counterpart.

To some, Uribe, whose father was assassinated by the FARC in a 1983 kidnap attempt, was just waiting for an excuse to put a stop to Chavez's efforts. To others, Chavez acted clumsily. If Uribe had any second thoughts about Chavez's role as a mediator, his telephone conversation with the head of the Colombian Army--after Uribe had asked him not to speak to his generals--was the last straw. …