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Can Chávez free FARC hostages?

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

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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.

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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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