FARC's Chance to Do Right for Colombia

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 28, 2007; 12:01 AM

WASHINGTON -- Latin America's oldest guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, couldn't ask for a better opportunity to do what is right. For 43 years the FARC has been waging war against the Colombian state and more recently profiting from drug trafficking and kidnappings. Now it is using 45 high-profile hostages, including a former presidential candidate and three U.S. citizens, as pawns to negotiate the release of hundreds of FARC members held in Colombian prisons.

The latest attempt at an exchange got a significant boost less than two months ago. On Aug. 15, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe eased off his usual hard-line rhetoric and named a political archrival, Sen. Piedad Cordoba, as facilitator for an exchange. Cordoba moved quickly to seek a humanitarian agreement with the FARC and reached out to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has agreed to mediate and even offered to host negotiations in Venezuela.

Chavez's involvement is the single most important element that makes this attempt the most promising in recent memory. Chavez is providing "a hope, a light that we hadn't seen for a long time," Mariana Howes, wife of one of Americans, said hours after meeting with Chavez in Caracas Tuesday night. The FARC seems to trust him, and his profile as champion of the left and Fidel Castro's symbolic successor give him cachet within the guerrilla movement.

Even the Bush administration has been cooling its talk about refusing to negotiate with terrorists and giving Chavez, its nemesis in the region, some slack. The new U.S. Ambassador in Bogota, William Brownfield, has called Chavez's mediation "positive."

Other leaders too are rallying behind Chavez, including President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who last week offered Brazilian territory for negotiations, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been pushing Uribe to negotiate the agreement particularly for the release of Ingrid Betancourt, the former presidential candidate and a French citizen.

All of these elements raise the profile of the negotiations while the involvement of regional leftist leaders brings what would presumably be -- at least in terms of a certain political kinship -- more sympathetic faces to the table. Cordoba, who sees the agreement as a first step toward a peace deal, told me in a conversation Friday that if Colombians have any reason to trust the FARC this time, it is precisely because those leftist leaders embody the peaceful and democratic alternative that the FARC could pursue one day.

What better time to let the hostages go. But if 43 years with the FARC have taught Colombians anything, it is to be prepared for disappointment. The FARC has raised hopes at the prospects of breakthroughs too many times only to dash them.

This past May, Jhon Frank Pinchao, a Colombian policeman who escaped his FARC captors after almost nine years as a hostage, brought word that Betancourt, the Americans and many others were still alive in the jungles of Colombia. But just a month later, news surfaced that 11 of those hostages had been killed. Early this month, the International Committee of the Red Cross recovered the bodies. Many had numerous gunshot wounds, some at close range.

Even with the involvement of Chavez, the FARC keeps putting up roadblocks. In a letter to the Venezuelan leader last week, FARC commander Manuel Marulanda insisted that he will negotiate only if the Colombian government guaranteed the safety of FARC representatives by demilitarizing a zone in Colombia where the negotiations would take place.

During the government that preceded Uribe, the FARC used a similar ploy to fool Colombians into believing it was serious about peace talks. After three years of little progress, it became clear that the FARC was using the zone to regain strength and for illegal activities. In February 2002 then-President Andres Pastrana called off the talks. Not surprisingly, Uribe has repeatedly rejected Marulanda's latest precondition.

If somehow Chavez can pull off a successful negotiation and the hostages return to their families, his international standing will rise.

That would be an important achievement considering that just a year ago he hit an international low with his infamous U.N. speech comparing President George Bush to Satan.

Uribe too could take full credit for naming Cordoba and allowing Chavez to mediate. The FARC might also regain some political legitimacy.

Of course, assessments of political victors and victories hardly matter to those held in captivity. Such calculations are meaningless and should not be allowed to get in the way of a humanitarian agreement. The lives of those kidnapped depend on it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company