By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia, July 7 -- At a May presidential summit in Brazil, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela sought out his Colombian counterpart and regional rival, Álvaro Uribe. The two had not spoken in months. But Chávez got right to the point, telling Uribe: "We haven't been giving money to the FARC," referring to the rebel group that has operated in Colombia since the 1960s.
It was a step toward reconciliation. Now, after last week's daring Colombian military operation that rescued 15 high-profile hostages from those rebels, the next step will occur when Uribe and Chávez meet Friday in Caracas. Often tense over the years, their relationship broke badly after Uribe accused Chávez in March of aiding the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, as the peasant-based rebels are formally known.
Chávez, a self-styled revolutionary, is now seeking to distance his government from the FARC and secure a role for himself in future efforts to free the more than 700 hostages who remain in guerrilla hands.
Political analysts say the possibility of a role for Chávez will not come soon, because the Venezuelan leader for months questioned the legitimacy of Colombia's government and touted the FARC's long war to topple it.
Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerrilla in Venezuela and a sharp critic of Chávez's government, said that if the Venezuelan president makes friendly gestures, such as expelling guerrillas from Venezuelan soil, he could be welcomed back into the process. Last year, Uribe invited Chávez to help broker hostage negotiations -- an initiative that ended in acrimony after Uribe sidelined the Venezuelan leader because of his showmanship. Later, though, Chávez won the release of six Colombian politicians.
"He could be useful in a process, if the Colombian government and the FARC enter into talks, but it would have to be a different Chávez," said Petkoff, editor of Tal Cual, a Caracas newspaper. "Chávez could be considered a factor, but under condition that he not use this for his personal gain, that he cut relations with the FARC, that he order guerrillas be attacked."
Senior Colombian government officials said they want Chávez to expel two top FARC commanders, who, according to Colombia's intelligence service, operate freely in Venezuela. They are Luciano Marín, alias Ivan Márquez, and Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timochenko.
Colombian officials said they were pleasantly surprised when, on June 8, Chávez announced on his Sunday television show that armed struggle was a relic of the past. He called on the FARC to unilaterally release the hundreds of hostages the group holds. He said the FARC had "become an excuse" for the Bush administration's intervention in Latin America, a sharp criticism of a rebel group that just months earlier he had called a legitimate military movement with valid political objectives.
A high-ranking Colombian government official said those statements -- along with conciliatory comments last week after the rescue -- have led Uribe's administration to believe it can work with Chávez to further isolate the waning rebel movement.
That marks a change from a few months ago. In March, a trove of documents that Colombian troops recovered from the laptop of a dead guerrilla commander appeared to show that Venezuela had been helping the FARC procure arms and hatch plans to isolate Uribe, a key Bush ally in the region.
Venezuelan officials have vigorously denied the claims -- even after Interpol, the international police agency, said the documents in the computers had not been tampered with after their recovery by Colombian troops.
Political analysts say the documents could damage Chávez's political standing ahead of important regional elections in November. Many Venezuelans worry about Chávez's public sympathy for an unpopular rebel group as crime and economic concerns mount in their country. Though Chávez retains the support of a majority of Venezuelans, polls show that more than 70 percent of the country rejects the FARC and the government's position toward the group.
"Chávez is in a strategy of recuperating his popularity to avoid the political cost," said Luis Vicente León of Datanalisis, a Caracas polling firm.
Socorro Ramírez, an expert in Venezuela-Colombia relations at Bogota's National University, said the Venezuelan government probably calculated that it was better to distance itself from the FARC, as it watched the Colombian military launch strikes this past spring that badly hurt the group. She noted that Chávez's earlier call for other governments in the region to recognize the FARC as a legitimate military force went unheeded.
"The Colombia situation, the situation in Latin America, leaves little margin for Chávez to continue the alliance with the FARC," she said. "But it lends itself to have him playing an important role in negotiations."
Even Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician rescued last Wednesday after almost six years in the FARC's jungle prisons, said Chávez could be an "important ally" in negotiations with the FARC.
After the elaborate ruse that tricked the rebels into handing over the hostages, Chávez congratulated Uribe and offered to help free other hostages and further talks "to achieve peace in Colombia." Chávez also said Uribe would be received in Caracas "as a brother."
In Colombia, however, there remains a deep suspicion about the Venezuelan leader's motives.
Declassified U.S. cables and Pentagon intelligence reports show that as far back as the late 1980s, Colombian and U.S. officials were reporting that Chávez and people close to him were meeting with Colombian rebels. They discussed, among other things, how the guerrillas wanted to create a semiautonomous region along the border between the two countries, according to the documents, obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University and shared with The Washington Post.
"They show that U.S. and Colombian intelligence, along with some elements of the Venezuelan military, had long suspected and alleged that Chávez had political and even military ties to Colombian guerrillas," said Michael Evans, an analyst at the archive.
Former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana, who left office in 2002, recalled how his government detected Venezuelan overtures to Colombian guerrillas and raised its concerns with Chávez. He said, however, that Chávez's goal seemed to be to further peace talks to burnish his image as a regional power broker. That worried Pastrana, who believed the Colombian government alone should guide talks with the FARC.
"I have always had a thesis about these things -- allowing neighbors in a process like this is bad," Pastrana said. "It's like lending money to a friend."