Wednesday, January 16, 2008
ON THURSDAY, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an organization that in the past decade has kidnapped more than 750 people who remain missing, released two captives into the custody of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The FARC, which decades ago discarded the Marxist ideology it wielded in the 1960s for the mercenary causes of abduction and drug trafficking, is anything but an altruistic movement, so many wondered what it would get in exchange for the propaganda coup it handed Mr. Chávez.
The shocking answer arrived the next day: In a four-hour address to the Venezuelan Congress, Mr. Chávez described the FARC and another Colombian group, the Army of National Liberation (ELN), as "not terrorists" but "genuine armies." He claimed that they possessed "a Bolivarian political project that is respected here," a reference to his own, half-baked "socialism for the 21st century." And he demanded that they be recognized as lawful belligerents by the United States and Latin American and European governments that now classify them as terrorist organizations. In short, Mr. Chávez was endorsing groups dedicated to violence and other criminal behavior in a neighboring Latin American democracy, and associating his agenda with theirs.
It was encouraging to see the revulsion this statement instantly produced in Latin America, where terrorism has caused incalculable damage. But the message the FARC channeled through Mr. Chávez was really aimed at Europeans and Americans. Some in Washington, London and Madrid, where kidnappings are rare, are happy to embrace Mr. Chávez -- former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, for example, can be heard in radio advertisements touting his alliance with the Venezuelan leader. The FARC may think it can similarly find allies. Filmmaker Oliver Stone is already sold: He recently called the FARC "heroic."
The answer to this logic was provided by the press office of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who has been waging what is, in fact, a heroic battle against the brutal gangs that for decades have plagued his country. "The violent groups of Colombia are terrorists because they finance themselves through a business that is lethal to humanity: drug trafficking," the press office said. (The FARC exports hundreds of tons of cocaine annually, and an increasing portion of it passes through Venezuela.) "The violent groups of Colombia are terrorists because they kidnap, place bombs indiscriminately, recruit and murder children, murder pregnant women, murder the elderly and use antipersonnel mines that leave in their wake thousands of innocent victims." All these assertions have been well documented by Western human rights groups that are otherwise hostile to Mr. Uribe's government.
No wonder even governments allied with Mr. Chávez, such as those of Argentina and Ecuador, recoiled from his appeal. Latin American leaders who until now have seen in Mr. Chávez a crude populist who buys his friends with petrodollars are faced with something new: a head of state who has openly endorsed an organization of kidnappers and drug traffickers in a neighboring, democratic country. "You can't be legal in your own country and accept illegality in another," said Guatemala's newly elected president, Álvaro Colom. Venezuela's neighbors now must calculate how to respond to a leader who has violated that fundamental rule.