Chavez Reiterates Call on Colombian Rebels to Release All Hostages

Source: Venezuela Analysis

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called on the new leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Alfonso Cano, to liberate all of the insurgent group’s hostages and advance toward a peaceful end to the Colombian conflict in coordination with other Latin American and European nations.

"The hour has arrived for the FARC to liberate all of those they have in the mountain," Chávez declared on his weekly Sunday talk show Aló Presidente, assuring that "it would be a grand gesture, in exchange for nothing."

Consistent with his declarations over the past year, President Chávez reiterated that the hostage release "could be the first step" toward a peace process in Colombia, since the conditions for peace are ripe in Latin America.

Chávez proposed that a broad coalition of countries including Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador, France, Spain, Portugal, along with the Organization of American States (OAS) work together with Colombia to guarantee that peace accords are carried out between the Colombian government and the guerrillas, two parties which have been at war for more than four decades.

"Here, I ask for the world’s help… enough of so much war, the hour to sit down and talk of peace has arrived, we call on the world to seek this path," Chávez said.

Moreover, the president expressed his opinion that "it must be said to the FARC" that subversive guerrilla groups are "out of place" in the Latin America of today. "Guerrilla warfare is history," he proclaimed.

Worse, insurgents such as the FARC serve as an excuse for the United States "Empire" to "threaten all of us," Chávez insisted.

The president asserted that peace in Colombia will take away the United States’ principal excuse for its intervention and maintenance of military bases in Latin America, specifically the possible military base in Colombia.

Chávez said he had intended to discuss this with the former FARC leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, with whom he and Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba had successfully negotiated the liberation of six high-profile FARC hostages in late 2007 and early this year.

However, the Venezuelan government lost contact with the FARC in March after Colombian armed forces attacked a FARC camp in Ecuador, setting off a regional diplomatic crisis and killing the FARC’s chief negotiator of hostage releases, Raul Reyes.

Then, the FARC announced last month that Marulanda, whose legal name was Pedro Marín, died of a heart attack in March, and Cano was announced as the new leader.

"Let’s let all these people go, I want to say to Cano!" Chávez called out in his first ever public statement to the new FARC commander Sunday.

Chavez’s pronouncements drew praise from Colombia and other Latin American governments, Venezuelan NGOs, and groups in support of the liberation of the FARC’s highest-profile hostage, former French presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said that with Chávez’s declarations "we can feel calm and renew relations in good spirits for the benefit of both peoples." He added that "if this is true and is converted into actions, it is very good news."

Peruvian President Alan García said the announcements show that Chávez "is not the fierce devil that some paint him to be."

"I congratulate him, I think he will be paid attention to because he has a lot of influence, he has been in some way close to the FARC, he has defended them," García stated, referring to the fact that Chávez last year had supported the FARC’s campaign to be classified as a belligerent force rather than a terrorist group, as Colombia and its ally the United States contend.

The president of Citizen Control, a Caracas-based NGO, Rocío San Miguel, praised Chávez’s move, calling it a "180 degree turn in his policy" and claiming that the President had been "pushed back by pressure" from civil society groups.

However, Chavez has on several previous occasions, such as last January, made similar calls on the FARC to unilaterally release all hostages and to work towards a peace agreement.

Chávez has promoted the liberation of FARC hostages and a peaceful, humanitarian solution to the Colombian conflict since Colombian President Álvaro Uribe invited him into negotiations of the exchange of 39 hostages for 500 imprisoned rebels last August. Chávez was abruptly cut off from negotiations by Uribe last November, and the full exchange did not materialize.

Since diplomatic relations between Colombia and Venezuela soured, the family of Ingrid Betancourt and group who support the hostage´s release have pleaded for Chávez to be allowed to return to the negotiating table.

Monday, the International Federation of Ingrid Betancourt Committees (FICIB) in Paris praised the Venezuelan president’s announcements, saying "it is especially important that this call has been made by a person who we know has the respect of the guerilla leaders."

"In a moment in which new hopes for a peaceful solution have appeared, we ask that the Colombian government and military not take any initiative that could put the process in danger," the organization urged in an official statement, emphasizing that "President Chávez’s call is headed in a good direction and brings new hopes for all the families of those kidnapped."

The French government issued a similar statement, calling them "positive" and that they would help find "a humanitarian solution that will allow the release of the hostages," said a spokesperson for France’s Foreign Ministry.

Early last month, President Uribe authorized Colombian Communist Party leader Carlos Lozano, who also directs the weekly publication Voz, and a Colombian ex-minister Álvaro Leyva, to make direct contact with the FARC leader.

Lozano announced over the weekend that the process is "on a good path," and that although they have not exchanged direct messages with Cano, "the channel of direct and trustworthy communication with Cano is open", an achievement made in team with the Spanish, French, and Swiss governments, Lozano affirmed.

Chávez’s recent announcements are "realist," and "transcendental" according to Lozano, who has advocated reactivating Chávez and Senator Córdoba’s mediation efforts.