War vs Peace: Colombia, Venezuela
and the FARC Hostage Saga
by Kiraz Janicke
On February 4 a series of massive ostensibly
"non-political" "peace" demonstrations against
the left-wing guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) took place in Colombia. Hundreds of thousands
took part under the banner of "No more FARC, No more kidnappings."
Protests also took place around the world.
However, as a February 3 statement by
the British-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign (CSC) argued, despite
the portrayal of these demonstrations as the "spontaneous"
and "independent" initiative of ordinary citizens, they
were in reality part of an "orchestrated campaign to manipulate
international opinion away from backing a negotiated, humanitarian
agreement as the most hopeful means towards a peaceful settlement
to the country's armed conflict."
Initially publicized on internet networking
site Facebook, the demonstrations, in which right-wing paramilitary
leaders featured prominently, were heavily promoted and funded
by the Colombian state apparatus and big business.
All major radio, television and newspaper
outlets in Colombia provided free advertising in the days leading
up to the rally. The Colombian stock exchange was also closed,
bosses pressured workers to attend and the government shut down
schools and public services for the rally.
These measures were aimed at mobilizing
the greatest possible support for right-wing Colombian President,
Alvaro Uribe (the United States' staunchest ally in the region)
and his policy of perpetuating Colombia's decades-long civil war.
The anti-FARC demonstrations took place
in the context of growing conflict between Venezuela and Colombia
following following Uribe's surprise invitation in August last
year to Venezuela's left-wing President Hugo Chavez to mediate
in the armed conflict, in the first place to negotiate an exchange
of 47 FARC-held prisoners for 500 FARC fighters in currently in
Even though, under US pressure, Uribe
terminated Chavez's role in November (on the pretext of a supposed
violation of diplomatic protocol), Chavez, together with the families
of the FARC-held prisoners and Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba,
was able to facilitate the release of two FARC-held prisoners,
Senator Consuelo González and Clara Rojas, on January 10.
This was the first unilateral prisoner
release by the FARC in years and sparked hope that a humanitarian
accord, and ultimately and end to decades of war, was possible.
To this end, Chavez called for the FARC to be removed from the
US and EU's international list of terrorist organizations and
be granted "belligerent status." The effect of this
would be twofold Chavez argued, firstly it would require the guerrillas
to renounce policies such as hostage taking and abide by human
rights provisions in the Geneva protocols and secondly it would
provide the framework for a political solution to the conflict
and the reintegration of the FARC into Colombian society.
However, Colombian elites backed by the
US (which supplies the Colombian government with US$600 million
in military aid annually) are worried at what the prospect of
a peaceful solution to the conflict (which would remove the pretext
for current US military intervention and require the dismantling
of at least the worst aspects of the repressive apparatus of the
Colombian state, including the state-backed paramilitaries), would
mean for ``institutional stability''.
The US and Colombian elite are also concerned
at the impact of the Bolivarian revolution as the process of radical
change led by Chavez in Venezuela is known inside Colombia, with
many of the long-suffering poor looking favorably on the revolution's
For these reasons, Uribe has responded
to growing hopes for peace by launching a major political offensive
against Chavez and the FARC.
Uribe claimed that Chavez's call to remove
the FARC from terror lists constituted "interference"
in Colombia's internal affairs and embarked on a major diplomatic
offensive touring Madrid, Paris, and Geneva, and speaking at the
World Economic Forum in Davos to shore up support for Colombia's
war stance towards the FARC in the name of fighting the "war
Within the space of one week, three high
level US officials - Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen,
director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy John Walters,
and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - visited Colombia, where
they made a series of attacks on Venezuela.
The officials alleged that Venezuela had
become a key transit route for Colombia's cocaine production,
which accounts for 60% of world supplies. They also alleged that
Venezuela is supplying material support and weapons to the FARC;
that the FARC operate in Venezuelan territory and hold prisoners
there, and that Venezuela constitutes a military threat to Colombia
and has expansionist aims in the region.
However, no evidence has been provided
to back up any of these claims, none of which stand up to scrutiny
of the facts. The allegations are in reality aimed at generating
a matrix of negative international opinion in order to isolate
the Chavez government whose Bolivarian revolution is posing a
serious challenge to U.S. imperialism in the region.
This media and diplomatic campaign has
been combined with the launching of a general military offensive
against the FARC guerillas which control around 30% of Colombian
Orders were given on January 26 to encircle
FARC camps where prisoners are held in order to carry out a military
rescue (in direct contradiction to the wishes of the relatives
of the prisoners) and to attempt to engage FARC guerrillas in
combat. On the day of the so-called peace rally, Uribe called
for the complete eradication of the FARC from Colombian soil.
Roots of the conflict
Colombia's guerrilla war dates back six
decades, to La Violencia (The Violence) the 10-year civil war
that began in the late 1940s between the Conservative and Liberal
parties of the Colombian oligarchy that resulted in at least 200,000
Many workers and peasants fled the violence,
creating independent "peace communities" in the south
of the country. When the government persecuted these communities,
guerrilla organizations were formed as instruments of self-defense.
Out of these groups, the FARC formed in 1964, and today, together
with the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's second largest
guerrilla group, control almost 40% of the country.
The FARC has previously attempted to reach
a peace accord with the Colombian government in the 1980s. However,
after they disarmed and established a civilian organization, 3,000
of their members were massacred by the military, forcing them
back into armed struggle. The FARC were placed on the US's list
of banned terrorist organizations after the September 11, 2001
terrorist attacks in the US.
The campaign against the FARC and the
Venezuelan government also seeks to distract attention from the
growing "para-politics" scandal that has engulfed the
Uribe government, with 40 pro-Uribe legislators under investigation
for their connections to the paramilitary groups, including Uribe's
brother and cousin.
Uribe is also seeking to use the conflict
as an excuse to crackdown on internal dissent. The Colombia Solidarity
Campaign statement reported that in the previous two weeks, dozens
of activists have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. Senator
Peidad Cordoba, who is now under investigation for "crimes
against the homeland," has been the victim of numerous death
threats and verbal assaults attacks publicly justified by Colombian
Interior Minister, Carlos Holguin in Colombian daily El Tiempo
on January 24 when he said, "when a person speaks against
their country, as Senator Piedad Cordoba did, it is natural that
people will react."
Leader of the center-left opposition party,
Polo Democratico Alternativo, Carlos Gaviria, also received death
threats for organizing a separate march on the same day as the
pro-war demonstrations in order to call for a humanitarian accord.
Gaviria described the political environment as "pre-fascist."
However, the pro-war "peace"
demonstrations dominated by Colombia's wealthy classes revealed
deep divisions within Colombian society. Many sectors criticized
the marches for failing to condemn the violence and kidnappings
by right-wing paramilitaries, as well the violence carried out
by the Colombian state itself. Colombia has the highest rate of
killings of trade unionists in the world.
In a country where 49% of people live
in poverty and only one in four can afford access to the internet,
Maria Jimena Duzan, a columnist for the Colombian daily El Tiempo,
pointed out that it is unlikely "that the victims of the
paramilitaries," who tend to be impoverished peasants, "have
their own select club on Facebook."
While leaders of right-wing paramilitary
death squads participated in the march, the families of FARC-held
prisoners refused, claiming the protests "promoted hate."
Astrid Betancourt, the sister of Ingrid Betancourt who is currently
held by the FARC, accused Uribe of "manipulating the pain
of the families."
Deyanira Ortiz, whose husband has been
held by the FARC for six years, said the protests were "not
for the freedom of the hostages but against the FARC. And that
doesn't serve any purpose."
While the families of the prisoners have
repeatedly called for the reinstatement of Chavez as a mediator,
the anti-FARC demonstrations featured significant anti-Chavez
and anti-Venezuelan sentiment. Many marchers carried placards
reading "Chavez go home" and "No to communism,
no to Chavez, no to the FARC."
As Uribe was ratcheting up the war drive,
the FARC announced on February 2 that it would unilaterally release
a second round of prisoners, ex-congress members, Gloria Polanco
de Losada, Luis Eladio Perez, and Orlando Beltrán Cuéllar,
to the Venezuelan government, as a gesture of "recognition
for the persistent efforts to achieve a humanitarian accord"
by Chavez and Cordoba.
Venezuela has confirmed it will facilitate
the hostage release, and the Colombian government has said thus
far it will not impede the operation.
However, tensions between the two countries
remain high. Colombian paramilitary groups continue to operate
with impunity in the border region, and Chavez has warned of a
potential US proxy war against Venezuela via a Colombian invasion.
He says he has received intelligence from Brazil and Argentina
to indicate this.
Although Chavez has repeatedly stressed
that Venezuela seeks a peaceful resolution to the conflict in
neighbouring Colombia, which has often spilt over the border and
caused millions of refugees to flee to Venezuela, he has also
made it clear that Venezuela will defend itself from any attack.
If Colombia invaded Venezuela, "they
would regret it for 100 years," Chavez said during a televised
speech on February 2. "Don't even think about it, Colombian
oligarchs, you would run into the soldiers of Bolivar."
In the immediate term, the strategy of
the US appears to be continued provocation aimed at raising tensions
between the two countries, coupled with a renewed diplomatic onslaught
to isolate Venezuela.
In the context of the continental rebellion
against US domination and neoliberalism, Uribe, referred to by
Chavez as a "sad pawn" of the US, has become a symbol
of the imperialist policies of Washington in Latin America. However,
the fate of FARC-held prisoners and prospects for peace in Colombia
are in large part connected to the Bolivarian revolution and its
struggle for a genuine and just peace in the region.