Colombians devastated at Chávez’s ‘dismissal’

Bogotá, 22 November 2007 — ‘Listen, I want to ask you – how many police and soldiers are held hostage by the Farc?’ Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s simple question to Colombian General Mario Montoya has now been used as an excuse by Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe to end the first positive attempt in many years to reach a humanitarian agreement with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) guerrillas.


On Wednesday, Chávez was in his office in Caracas’s Miraflores Presidential Palace with Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, who had been personally chosen by Uribe to conduct negotiations together with Chávez, in the hope of reaching an agreement to exchange guerrilla prisoners in jail for politicians and soldiers held by the Farc.


Córdoba was making a round of telephone calls to inform Colombian politicians and the families of kidnap victims of the latest progress in the negotiations. When she called General Montoya, Córdoba passed the phone to Chávez, who then asked the question he must have asked everyone since being invited by Uribe to help with the humanitarian agreement.


That Uribe has now used this 30 second telephone call to claim Chávez is interfering in Colombia’s internal politics, and that it warrants an abrupt end, not just to the Venezuelan President’s efforts, but also Senator Córdoba’s work towards an agreement to free those kidnapped, has been met with confusion, disbelief and dismay by Colombians hopeful that an agreement, and even, eventually, an end to the war, had become a real possibility.


Chávez’s question is a relevant and pertinent one – particularly as no-one seems to know exactly how many hostages are held by the Farc. Humanitarian organisations that assist the families of kidnap victims in Colombia, such as País Libre, estimate the guerrillas are holding 2,000, including police, soldiers, local politicians and also high profile hostages such as 2002 presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt, but a definitive figure is not known.


The reaction from the hostages’ families to Uribe’s unilateral decision to end the negotiations has been heartbreaking. ‘Mr President, please reconsider,’ implored Marleny Orjuela, a mother of one kidnap victim, ‘put yourself in our shoes for one minute – just a single minute – to understand how we feel.’


‘Please don’t take away our hope,’ read a hurriedly written placard at an impromptu demonstration in Bogotá’s central plaza, but a statement issued by the presidential palace declared Uribe’s decision to be ‘irreversible.’


While the French government stated that ‘President Chávez’s involvement is the best option to liberate the hostages’, Chávez himself went on Venezuelan television to say that although he ‘respected President Uribe’s decision, I feel sorry for all those prisoners in the hands of the Farc, the guerrillas in jail, their families and loved ones, and also for Colombia.’


Chávez continued, saying that he believed peace would ‘return to Colombia’, and that he would talk with Uribe to try to convince him to reconsider his decision. Declaring his ‘love for our sister country’, Chávez said he was ready to do everything he could to ‘alleviate the suffering of the Colombian people.’

For Carlos Lozano, Voz newspaper editor in Bogotá, Uribe’s ‘dismissal’ of Chávez as a negotiator shows that the Colombian government is ‘not interested in peace.’ Citing Uribe’s recent declaration that he had ordered the military to kill any Farc commanders who emerged from the jungle to participate in negotiations, Lozano said, ‘he wants the war to continue – this is clear.’

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