For months, the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were the darlings of
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He urged the public to consider the
FARC noble freedom-fighters rather than a pack of narco-terrorists. He
praised them as a Bolivarian Army on a sacred mission to drive the
United States out of Columbia. Chávez even entered into secret talks
with the FARC, promising the organization arms and money.
the FARC's second-in-command, Raul Reyes, died in a Colombian military
strike in Ecuador, Chávez eulogized him as a "good revolutionary" and
ordered ten battalions of troops to the border with Columbia. Soon,
storm clouds of war hovered over Caracas and the Andean region.
Suddenly, on June 8, 2008, these clouds appeared to part. During his weekly television show, Hello Mr. President,
Venezuela's maverick leader urged the FARC's new commander, Alfonso
Cano, to free hundreds of hostages held by the guerrillas. Making a 180
degree shift in policy, Chávez also encouraged the FARC to enter into
peace talks with the government. "At this moment in Latin America," he
declared, "an armed guerrilla movement is out of place."
exploration of the factors behind Chávez's rhetorical shift reveals
that now is not only the time to seek release of the hostages held by
the FARC, but also an opportunity to bring lasting peace to Columbia.
The Chávez Shift
Why the sudden change? For all his bluster, President Chávez knows the
computer files that belonged to Reyes held a cache of evidence
documenting his government's material support of the FARC. For
instance, by late 2007 and early 2008, Chávez was enmeshed in efforts
to free FARC hostages. Under the pretense of creating a humanitarian
accord, he secretly offered the FARC guns, money, and his public
The death of both Reyes and the FARC's historic leader
Manuel Marulanda, along with the recovery of the FARC computers, seems
to have dashed the possibility of any such offer, weakening ties
between the Venezuelan leader and the FARC. In light of the FARC's
recent setbacks, including the deaths of Marulanda and Reyes, Chávez
may no longer view backing the FARC as a prudent political strategy.
Indeed, short of providing massive arms assistance, Venezuela might not
be able to aid the guerrillas effectively against a Colombian
government that feels that its tough strategy is weakening the FARC.
must also be noted that Chávez's effort to distance himself from the
FARC came days after the Colombians arrested four men, including two
Venezuelans, one of whom identified himself as a sergeant in
Venezuela's national guard, transporting 40,000 rounds of AK-47
ammunition to the FARC. Such incidents have made Chávez's continued
support of the FARC politically perilous.
authenticated the FARC files in May, Chávez has taken a serious
pounding in the international press. He may also be a recipient of
behind-the-scenes pressure from more responsible nations like Brazil
and Chile, whose leaders know that it will be hard for Latin America to
progress and prosper as long as the region's most visible president
extols the armed path to power and bankrolls an army of
Trouble at Home
must also focus attention on his eroding domestic image, which has been
negatively affected by a host of problems including food shortages,
rising inflation, and soaring crime rates. Venezuelans are also
reacting to a loss of individual liberties. Chávez's promulgation of a
new intelligence services law was widely criticized as a giant step
toward implementing Cuban-style totalitarian domestic spying. In
response to public outrage, Chávez promised to withdraw the
controversial measure on June 7.
Of immediate concern for Chávez
are state and municipal elections scheduled for the coming November.
Additionally, Chávez is likely to make another attempt at passing a
constitutional referendum allowing additional presidential terms. If
Chávez cannot engineer such a referendum, he will have to relinquish
power in 2013. Given the challenges he is facing domestically, Chávez
may have decided that supporting the FARC and meddling in Colombia's
internal affairs is becoming a political liability at home. He may also
be facing hidden pressure from key players inside Venezuela, including
the military, to severe ties to the FARC.
Pressure from the North
his bravado, Chávez's change of heart may also stem from his fear of
being declared a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. As he commented
in the June 8 speech, "You [the FARC] have become an excuse for the
empire to threaten us all." Clearly, Chávez is not willing to be
labeled a sponsor of FARC terrorism if the cost is his own political
Is Chávez genuinely convinced that the day of the
guerrilla is over? Will he turn words into concrete actions? The rule
remains: Watch what Chávez does, not what he says. Chávez's ability to
get the FARC to renounce terrorism, even temporarily, is also uncertain.
An Opportunity for Peace
of Chávez's motivations, the Latin American political climate appears
propitious for a new initiative aimed at ending the conflict in
Colombia. Ecuador and Colombia are meeting and appear ready to repair
relations and develop a strategy aimed at controlling their ungoverned
border. Ecuador has also called for the Organization of American States
(OAS) to evaluate the evidence found in the FARC computers.
new bonding of Latin American nations, the Union of South American
Nations (UNSAUR), offers a potential foundation for a new era of peace.
Latin America, plagued by crime and drug violence, may have grown weary
of the FARC's hostage-taking, terrorism, and drug racketeering. If
every Latin American voice is raised, the message stands a better
chance of being heard in the FARC's remote ideological bastions.
it is time for the U.S. Congress to signal support for the Uribe
government by passing the stalled free trade agreement. This will give
the Colombians an extra fillip of confidence and legitimacy as they try
to draw the FARC toward demobilization and peace.
On June 8, the
clouds of confrontation may have lifted for a moment in the Andes. It
is time to seize the opportunity provided by this reprieve and seek
freedom for the FARC hostages and a concerted end to Colombia's bloody