By Juan Forero and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 4 -- Millions of protesters fanned out across Colombia on Monday, expressing fury over guerrilla atrocities in a long civil conflict and demanding the liberation of hundreds of hostages held in clandestine jungle camps.
Thousands more people joined in protests worldwide, with rallies staged here in neighboring Venezuela, as well as in Washington, New York and dozens of other cities as far away as Paris and Sydney.
It all began as the brainchild of a small group of young Colombian professionals who used Facebook, the social networking Web site, to generate protest against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The FARC, as the four-decade-old guerrilla group is known, holds nearly 800 captives, including three Americans.
In recent weeks, outrage against the FARC has mushroomed, with the issue of kidnappings by the group dominating public discourse in Colombia and in Venezuela, where the populist government of President Hugo Chávez has injected itself into hostage dramas.
Chávez has harshly criticized Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe, for being bellicose. He also has called the FARC a liberation movement that should not be classified as a terrorist group, even though it has long been labeled as such by the European Union and the United States.
Though Chávez's ideological kinship with the FARC permitted him to negotiate with the group and win the freedom of two hostages last month, his recent remarks touched off a diplomatic dispute with Uribe and angered many in Colombia, where the guerrillas have little public support. In the aftermath, Uribe's popularity rating has escalated to 80 percent -- his highest after more than five years in office -- and many Colombians, including politicians from the leftist Democratic Pole party, have united in condemning the FARC.
"We cannot stay quiet for one more minute," said the Rev. Jose E. Hoyos, a Colombian-born Catholic priest from Falls Church, Va., whose older brother was shot execution-style by the FARC last year after being kidnapped.
Hoyos spoke at Freedom Plaza in Washington, where about 1,500 people gathered to lift signs bearing images of long-missing hostages, swayed to a peace anthem by Colombian rock star Juanes and chanted "No more FARC."
"We want the world to know we're tired," said Ana Maria Ortiz, 21, a native of Bogota who works as a consultant. "What the FARC has done is just the limit. They've killed people, and we're tired."
More than 1 million Colombians fled their country from 1996 to 2001. On Monday, the Colombian diaspora, from Australia to Norway, helped give the movement against the FARC an international veneer.
Here in Venezuela, marches and rallies were held in several cities, including border states where kidnappings of Venezuelans are not uncommon. In Caracas, more than 2,000 people marched, carrying Venezuelan and Colombian flags and singing both national anthems.
"The position of the FARC is absolutely criminal," said Aliriro Serna, Colombian who has lived here since 1957. "It's not justified in the Colombia of today."
Not everyone who wants the hostages freed supported the rallies. In France, an organization that backs the most high-profile hostage in Colombia, Ingrid Betancourt, who has French and Colombian citizenship, said the demonstrations could be counterproductive.
The marches "go against mediation and negotiation," said Olivier Roubi, a spokesman for the group, according to Colombia's Caracol Radio. "If you're against the FARC, you're against the humanitarian accord."
Meanwhile in Venezuela, the government prepared to receive more hostages, after the FARC announced Saturday that it would free three more Colombians, all former members of Congress. Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba, who is close to Chávez and is working with Venezuela's government to secure the freedom of hostages, on Monday sharply criticized the anti-FARC demonstrations.
"I think that is a march of hate and racism, of classism and exclusion," she told Venezuelan state television.
Such sentiments, though, were not apparent as Colombians demonstrated both at home and abroad.
In Washington, Bernardo Vargas, 60, said his family had been hit hard by the FARC. Two brothers, a brother-in-law and a nephew have been among the relatives kidnapped and later released after his family met ransom demands.
"No one wanted to do demonstrations before," said Vargas, a lawyer and publisher of an online magazine on Colombian affairs. "People were afraid. Now that fear is over."
Brulliard reported from Washington.