Can Chávez free FARC hostages?
Venezuela's leftist leader is now working to release the 45 hostages, including three Americans, held in Colombia.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.