Buenos Aires : While much of the world was busy celebrating the end-of-year holidays, a political drama playing out in the Colombian jungle showed how even the powers of France and Venezuela can be embarrassed by a group of Marxist rebels who have been holding civilians hostage for years.
In a bold plan, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez assembled a high-profile team, including former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner, representatives of France, Brazil, several other countries and even Hollywood director Oliver Stone, to witness on Colombian soil the anticipated liberation of three hostages, among them a toddler.
But after four days of cooling their heels on the edge of the Colombian jungle, in the heat of the international news spotlight right before New Year’s, the team was left empty handed and the plan fell through.
The rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) blamed military activity in the jungle.
But there was more. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ventured a startling hypothesis: FARC could not release the three hostages because one of them – Emmanuel, born in captivity less than four years ago to FARC hostage Clara Rojas – was not actually in their hands at all.
And on Friday, the Colombian authorities confirmed that DNA tests showed a high probability that the boy, Juan David Gomez Tapiero, had been out of FARC’s reach and in foster care with local peasants since June 2005 due to his poor health.
In a column in the Colombian daily El Tiempo, Fernando Londono Hoyos, a former interior minister under Uribe, pointed to the folly of the release operation and to the duplicity of FARC, which he said had mocked “the whole world”.
In fact, the failed process once again brought home the helplessness of the world in tackling the complex Colombian conflict, which has devastated the South American country for some 40 years with its mixture of drug trade and politics.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has prioritised the release of the highest-profile hostage held by FARC, former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who holds dual French-Colombian citizenship and has been held for six years.
When Chavez – a maverick in the international political sphere – met with Sarkozy in Paris about getting involved, it renewed hope of at least some movement.
Chavez seemed the right man for the job. His abundant oil money, his relative ideological proximity to FARC and the leverage afforded to him by a long, porous border between the two countries which the rebels use at whim appeared perfect to exact compromises from the Colombian Marxist guerrillas.
The initial goal was to swap 50 politically-relevant hostages for hundreds of imprisoned FARC rebels. Colombian President Uribe, despite being on the opposite end of the political spectrum, allowed Chavez to move forward with the negotiations under pressure from the international community – but put the brakes on the operations when Chavez overstepped bounds and talked directly to his military commanders.
After Chavez was dismissed, FARC said it would release the boy, his mother Clara Rojas – Betancourt’s former vice-presidential candidate – and former legislator Consuelo Gonzalez.
The gesture was meant as a slap to Uribe and a tribute to Chavez. And In fact, Chavez was in dire need of a resounding success.
In the previous months, Chavez had high-profile spats with Spain and the Brazilian Senate, caused uproar at home and abroad over the closure of a popular television channel and lost his “21st century socialism” referendum that would have solidified the populist leftist’s grip on power.
The collapse of the hostage release before New Year’s shows moreover that even a politically-desperate Chavez, with the active assistance of France, Brazil and Argentina, cannot pry loose a toddler and two women hostages in Colombia.
That does not bode well for the South American country.
Colombians for the most part are not easily impressed by either promises of headway or by hurdles along the road, given the decades of waiting, and few were surprised at the sad turn.
And yet the possibility of the liberations inspired hope.
“There are times when one would like to be wrong. This was precisely one of them,” Londono Hoyos wrote.
Instead, the flopped release delivered new fodder for the black humour Colombians use to deal with the ongoing conflict. Hollywood director Stone’s presence prompted one Colombian satirist to caption a cartoon in El Tiempo: “The Delay, directed by Oliver Stone”.
The real losers were undoubtedly the families of the FARC hostages – not just the three. There are in fact 700 hostages – police, elected officials, foreigners, ordinary people – thought to be in the hands of the leftist rebels.
Whatever credibility FARC still had – with, for example, left wing Europeans – has been eroded, and any promise they ever make, even to Chavez, will be worth nothing.
That is undoubtedly terrible news for Uribe, Chavez, Sarkozy, FARC hostages and anyone seeking peace in Colombia.