Wanted: Mediator For Peace With FARC

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 18, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Colombians had a whiplash moment this past week. For the first time in more than six years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials FARC, freed two hostages. The deal was made possible through the participation of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who received the heartfelt gratitude of Colombians, including President Alvaro Uribe.

But before anyone could even dream that from this act of good will could come some inroads to peace, Chavez took to grandstanding, publicly celebrating the hostage release as a FARC victory that should translate into granting the rebel group political status.

Huh? Hadn't he just been fooled by the FARC too? Hadn't they just lied to him about freeing a child hostage they no longer held captive?

Chavez's latest showboating makes one ask: Can't we do better? Why can't the Americas find a better mediator to help bring an end to the oldest conflict in the hemisphere? Egypt and Israel had President Jimmy Carter. Northern Ireland had former Sen. George Mitchell. Kenya now has former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Mediation experts tell us what makes a successful mediator: international clout, patience, impartiality, the respect of the parties in conflict, and the ability to draw from both sides a practical deal that is acceptable to all. A good mediator doesn't grandstand, improvise, promise too much too early or create more frustration than already exists.

It is true that the Venezuelan seemed to have the immediate trust of the FARC and that made him appealing, particularly to those so desperate for success. But it is the trust that develops over time that an impulsive soul cannot hope to cultivate.

It took five years for Mitchell to earn the confidence of both parties in Northern Ireland, as he told me in an interview this week. "In a curious way," he said, "I benefited" from such a drawn-out process. During the lengthy breaking-in period, Mitchell had many opportunities to prove his impartiality and his long-term commitment. He basically made himself indispensable.

There are individuals such as Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva or Chilean President Michelle Bachelet who could prove just as valuable in Colombia. Both have the required international standing and both represent the modern and pragmatic left. There is also former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson, who last week ended his campaign for the U.S. presidency. A Hispanic, bilingual Democrat might have a lot to offer both parties.

But it is really not a lack of qualified talent that keeps peace beyond reach in the Andean nation. At this point, one must ask if the environment exists for mediation to function.

The FARC discarded long ago its leftist political and ideological agenda and is now more a criminal organization profiting from drug trafficking and kidnapping. It is hard to negotiate with a group that has a difficult time articulating a vision for itself outside of crime.

Or outright impossible, according to some observers. As Bernard Aronson, a top Latin America diplomat during George H.W. Bush's presidency, put it, "unless there is a will to negotiate, you could have Jesus doing the mediating, it wouldn't matter." In his mind, there is nothing that can be negotiated with a terrorist group that is only interested in ransom.

Similar criticisms were raised in Northern Ireland, recalled Mitchell. At the time, he said, the counterargument of the British and Irish governments was that "you have to move this process forward." In the case of Colombia, William Ury, negotiations expert at Harvard University, offered a counterargument with a pair of questions: "What's the alternative? A war in which innocent Colombians suffer 3,000 deaths every year?"

Uribe's government has achieved a certain level of military success against the FARC. Just this week, Colombian press reported the erosion of one of the FARC's most notorious factions, with dozens of its members turning themselves in to the armed forces. Still, Uribe has not shown an interest in mediation. Chavez in fact was practically forced upon him by Colombians frustrated with Uribe's inability in bringing hostages home.

While international attention remains high thanks to the release of hostages, Uribe should take the reins back from Chavez and aim high in requesting a worthy mediator.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

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