Friday, January 4, 2008

What Are the Chances for the Release of Three FARC Hostages?

Inter-American Dialogue's
Latin American Advisor

Republished by authorization of Erik Brand

Plans by Colombia's FARC rebels to hand over three hostages—former vice presidential candidate, Clara Rojas, her three year-old son Emmanuel, and former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez—to the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appeared to have fallen apart on Monday, with the FARC and the Colombian government blaming each other for the initiative's failure. What are the chances now for the hostages' release? Among Chavez, the FARC, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who are the biggest winners and losers as a result of the current impasse?

A: Board Comment: Diego Arria: "The FARC-Chavez operation—absurdly—was probably the most publicly advertised hostage rescue operation ever, even with Hollywood's Oliver Stone invited to shoot the delivery of the hostages to Hugo Chavez, who dressed in military fatigues and performed before the national and international media as the FARC's spokesman, providing details on the operation. By divulging the whereabouts of the Venezuelan helicopters that were available to pick up the hostages, who could have been easily tracked by satellites, Chavez must have surely increased the FARC's concerns about their own security, which could explain why they failed Chavez for the second time (previously not releasing Ingrid Betancourt as Chavez had promised French President Nicolas Sarkozy). Had Chavez followed the King of Spain's advice—'Por quĂ© no te callas' (why don't you shut up)—most probably the operation would have succeeded. The biggest losers so far are the families of two non–combatant, innocent women and the child. The FARC leadership is in significant debt to Chavez as its main supporter and will find a way to deliver them, but not with the display that Chavez needed to boost his very tarnished image at the expense of President Uribe for terminating his role as a negotiator for the release of Betancourt. FARC leaders that visit Chavez in Venezuela know well how to enter the country safely. Whom to blame depends on whether to believe the FARC version—supplied by Chavez—or the Uribe government. To accept the version of a criminal narco-terrorist organization, as former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and other Chavez Latin American allies did, instead of the oldest democracy in Latin Americashould be a matter of great concern to all. Make no mistake—the most important reality of this fiasco is that hostage delivery had little to do with humanitarian concern, and a lot to do with the perverse new dimension of terrorism: hostage trafficking. And this is precisely what the FARC and Hugo Chavez have done and will continue to attempt."

A: Guest Comment: Peter DeShazo: "The failed attempt to achieve the release of the three hostages underscores the difficulty of dealing with the FARC, even under circumstances in which the guerrilla organization hoped to score some political points by a unilateral 'humanitarian' gesture. Determined efforts by President Pastrana toward the end of his administration and under President Uribe's 'democratic security' policy over the past five years turned the tables on the FARC militarily, pushing them into a defensive position deeper in the hinterlands and sapping their operational capability. Estimates of the FARC's order of battle strength show a reduction of 40 percent from its zenith in the 1998-2002 period, with increasingly more veteran cadres deserting. As the military and economic circumstances of the FARC further deteriorate, the hundreds of hostages in FARC hands become an even more valuable bargaining resource. By dangling the potential of releasing high-profile hostages before domestic and international audiences, the FARC seeks to bolster its flagging image as a viable insurgency. Revelations of the terrible conditions under which FARC hostages are held, however, have further tarnished the FARC's reputation for cruelty, so that its initiatives to broker a hostage exchange or release become a double-edged sword. The collapse of this latest attempt at a hostage release raises further doubts about the command and control capabilities of FARC leadership. The successful release of hostages not only would have given the FARC some positive publicity but also would have underscored the FARC's admiration for Venezuelan President Chavez. The FARC has released hostages on past occasions without difficulty. When for whatever reason this initiative fell through, however, Chavez was left embarrassed and the FARC appeared duplicitous, incompetent, or both. Uribe, who allowed the operation to move forward, came out ahead—indeed, the Colombian people feel great solidarity with the suffering of the hostages and welcome efforts to bring about their release. Of course, the biggest losers in all this are the more than 750 hostages still in FARC hands, many of them suffering long captivities under barbaric conditions."

A: Guest Comment: Dan Restrepo: "We must not forget that the clearest losers here are the estimated 3,000 men, women, and children being held against their will by the FARC. Who wins and loses among presidents Uribe and Chavez and the FARC depends largely on the pending DNA test results. If the Colombian government's 'hypothesis' regarding the whereabouts of Emmanuel is validated, the FARC, exposed as fundamentally dysfunctional or deeply cynical or both, will be a clear loser. Such a result would also underscore the limits of President Chavez's influence. President Uribe would emerge, at least in the short-term, as a winner. He will, however, likely face the 'what did he know and when did he know it' questions regarding the true whereabouts of Emmanuel. The answers to those questions and the manner in which the 'hypothesis' was made public could also have negative long-term consequences in securing the freedom of the FARC-held hostages. If the Colombian government's hypothesis is not supported by the DNA results, President Uribe will find himself in a very difficult position. President Chavez will find some vindication, but unless he secures the release of at least these three FARC-held hostages, it will not be complete vindication. Having focused attention on their hostage taking, it is difficult to discern how the FARC emerges as a winner under virtually any scenario."

Diego Arria is a member of the Advisor board and Director of the Columbus Group.

Peter DeShazo is Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Dan Restrepo is Director of The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress.