Can Chávez free FARC hostages?

Venezuela's leftist leader is now working to release the 45 hostages, including three Americans, held in Colombia.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Juan Sebastián Lozada tries not to get his hopes up too high. His mother has been a hostage of Colombia's leftist rebels for six years, one of 45 pawns in a deadlocked political game between the government and guerrillas.

Time and again, Mr. Lozada and the families of other captives (including three Americans) have seen their dreams of being reunited with their loved ones dashed. A string of international diplomats, church officials, and local personalities have failed to broker a deal for the hostages in exchange for the release of jailed guerrillas.

But there's a new player in the game now. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has offered to mediate between the government of conservative President Álvaro Uribe and the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). So Lozada's hopes are up again. "This is a huge step, for Chávez to become involved," says Lozada.

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During the past two weeks, the charismatic, left-leaning Venezuelan leader has held a bilateral summit on the issue with Mr. Uribe, the FARC has agreed to meet with Chávez in Caracas, and he has visited the families of the hostages and families of rebel prisoners. Most significantly, the FARC appear open to the idea of holding formal negotiations in the neighboring country.

But Chávez knows making concrete progress won't be easy. "People tell me that I've gotten myself into a mess. I don't care. If I had to go to hell and back to achieve peace in Colombia, I would go," Chavez said in Caracas Saturday after returning from a one-day visit to Bogotá.

Among the captives held by the FARC are three Americans who were working for Northrop Grumman Corp. on a drug surveillance mission when their plane crashed in 2003. Also being held are former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who holds dual Colombian-French citizenship, Colombian governors, senators, and 37 police and military officers. Some have been languishing in hostage camps for nearly a decade.

Eleven regional lawmakers, who had also been on the list of "swappable" hostages, died June 18 while in FARC custody, in what the rebels said was a raid on the camp where the hostages were being held. The International Committee of the Red Cross recovered the remains this week after the FARC provided the coordinates of where they left the bodies.

In recent years, diplomats from Spain, France, and Switzerland have presented numerous proposals to bring the two sides together but both sides have found reasons to reject them. With Chávez in the picture, however, things may change. "Chávez, more than any European government, has a chance to move this issue," says Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

"President Chávez's ... ability, his shrewdness, and the prestige he has gained on the continent will help to resolve the issue of the humanitarian exchange," senior FARC commander Raúl Reyes said in an interview published Monday in the Mexican daily La Jornada.

Central to the debate is a FARC demand for the creation of a temporary demilitarized area in southern Colombia, roughly the size of New York City, where negotiations and an eventual swap would take place.

A Datexco poll published last week shows Colombians are split over whether the government should grant the haven for a hostage swap. Some 46 percent said they opposed a demilitarization zone while 40 percent said they would approve it.

Colombia's Uribe took office in 2002 vowing to defeat the rebels militarily, following failed peace talks between his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, and the FARC. Mr. Pastrana granted the FARC a haven the size of Switzerland, which the guerrillas used as a training ground for their troops and a holding pen for their hostages. Uribe made a firm promise never to demilitarize one square meter of Colombian territory.

Chávez offered to host the swap on Venezuelan territory, an idea rejected by the FARC. "We don't have a problem with negotiating anywhere, but the exchange of prisoners has to happen in Colombia," FARC commander Reyes told the Argentine daily Clarín last week.

Marleny Orjuela, who represents the families of the police and military officers held hostage by the FARC, says the families have high hopes for Chávez's mediation. She says all help from the international community was welcome, but that Chávez brings a new element to the table. "It's clear that the rebels admire Chávez and there is a similarity in the ideology," she says.

Chávez is a self-styled socialist who seeks to counter Washington's influence in Latin America by expanding his Bolivarian revolution in the region, a reference to the 19th-century South American hero Simón Bolívar, who led the liberation from Spain. The FARC also call themselves "Bolivarian." Despite the ideological chasm between Chávez and the right-leaning Uribe, the two have a good relationship. "Uribe has a strange but functional accommodation with Chávez," says Mr. Shifter.

On Saturday, more than two dozen Colombians, held in a Venezuelan prison for an alleged plot to overthrow Chávez three years ago, were reunited with their families. Chávez's pardon, announced just before his meeting with Uribe, was seen as a goodwill gesture toward Colombia.

Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping attempt in 1986, has been under intense domestic and international political pressure to find some solution to the hostage crisis. In June, he unilaterally ordered the release from jail of 150 low-ranking rebels. At the behest of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he also released Rodrigo Granda, the highest-ranking FARC prisoner, in the hopes of pressuring the rebels to agree to the swap without a haven. The FARC did not budge.

"If anyone can make the FARC change their position, it's Chávez," says Daniel Garcia-Peña, a former government peace negotiator and now a leader of the leftist opposition party Polo Democrático Alternativo. If he does, Mr. Garcia-Peña says, "everyone can come out a winner."

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