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Colombia: Behind the freeing of Betancourt

by Stuart Munckton

On July 2, an operation by the Colombian military succeeded in freeing French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who had held her prisoner since 2002. Betancourt was the highest-profile FARC-held prisoner and the action, which also liberated 14 other prisoners, captured world headlines.

On July 2, an operation by the Colombian military succeeded in freeing French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who had held her prisoner since 2002. Betancourt was the highest-profile FARC-held prisoner and the action, which also liberated 14 other prisoners, captured world headlines.

The liberating of the prisoners was widely celebrated, including by the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez, which has been involved in negotiating with the FARC for the release of its prisoners. According to a Venezuelanalysis.com article, Chavez stated: “We share the jubilation … for the liberation of these persons …”

Chavez reiterated his call, first made in January, for the FARC to release all of its remaining prisoners, and Venezuela’s foreign affairs ministry stated “we wish that this event will open the path to humanitarian accord, the dismantling of war, and the extraordinary achievement of peace”.

Strengthening militarism

While the liberation is welcome, there is little doubt the use of a military raid to free prisoners will be used by the Colombian regime headed by President Alvaro Uribe to strengthen its policies of using military might to crush the four decades-long insurgency by the FARC and, under the cover of fighting “terrorism”, strengthen the repressive apparatus of the Colombian state and its allied death squads against social movements and trade unionists. More trade unionists are killed in Colombia every year than in any other country.

While the military raid will be presented as evidence of the success of Uribe’s strategy, the full story will remain omitted from the corporate media. There was a very real alternative to liberating Betancourt other than through a military raid, an alternative that had, and still has, the potential to lead to a lasting peaceful solution to Colombia’s civil war.

Last year, under intense pressure over a growing paramilitary scandal engulfing his government, Uribe invited Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to help negotiate a humanitarian exchange of around 40 prisoners held by the FARC for the hundreds of FARC fighters held in Colombian and US prisons. A successful prisoner exchange could have been the first step to a peace settlement to end the fighting.

However, just as it looked like Chavez’s negotiations were making headway, Uribe unilaterally ended his role on a flimsy pretext, scuttling hopes for a negotiated exchange. As a sign of goodwill for Chavez’s intentions, the FARC subsequently released six prisoners unilaterally to the Venezuelan government earlier this year.

Plans for any further unilateral releases, potentially including Betancourt, were literally blown apart by the Colombian military on March 1 when it illegally bombed a FARC campsite inside the Ecuadorian border that killed more than 20 people, including civilians. Among those killed was FARC leader and chief spokesperson Raul Reyes, who was in charge of negotiations over Betancourt’s release.

The liberation of Betancourt could have occurred through an exchange of prisoners last year, had Uribe not ended the process. It is possible she could have been released unilaterally had the FARC negotiator not been murdered. Both possibilities could have been the basis for a serious peace process to begin.

A June 2 Bolpress.com article by Isaac Bigio argued that the action “will strengthen Uribe in his battle with the supreme court (which is questioning the ‘legality’ of his election and the fact that 20% of his parliamentarians are tied to paramilitaries) and his moves towards a new election (hoping to extend his mandate, which according to the constitution should end in 2010)”.

“It will also benefit [US Republican presidential candidate John] McCain (who recently went to Colombia) and his hardline ‘anti-terrorist’ strategy in front of [Democratic candidate Barack] Obama (who has asked for a meeting with Chavez and to put a freeze on a Free Trade Agreement with Bogota)”, Bigio argued.

Weakening the continental left

That fact that Uribe succeeded in liberating Betancourt without conceeding anything in return means “his image, as much domestically as internationally, will grow and the continental right wing will want to validate itself in order to launch a counteroffensive against the governments and leftist parties of the region”, according to the article.

“It could have an impact on the US electoral race given that the Republicans will want to use this to maintain themselves in power, demonstrating that the best way to defeat ‘terrorism’ is with investing more in intelligence and military actions.”

Bigio argued in relation to the FARC that “a guerrilla force that discredited itself by carrying out unpopular military actions ends up weakening the left itself … and helps in the consolidation of forces that want a greater liberalisation of the economy.”

He argued that the FARC has been dealt a “strong blow” and “may face new crises at a time when they have changed their leader for the first time”.

“The defeat of the FARC would have repercussions within the left”, he said. “While one sector will come out of this concluding that individual and isolated violence conspires against their ideals of organising towards a mass uprising, the majority of ‘socialists’ will look to distance themselves from all violent acts in order to appear as ‘moderates’ capable of being good democrats.”

On other hand, “Uribe will want to convert himself into the most popular president in the region and a symbol that the opponents of Chavez, [Ecuadorian President Rafael] Correa, [Bolivian President Evo] Morales and [Nicaraguan President Daniel] Ortega can use to undermine the advance of the ‘pink wave’ in Latin America”.

Uribe’s victory “will be used by the Venezuelan opposition to hit out at Chavez in the Venezuelan regional elections” in November, while it will also be used by the opposition to the Morales government in Bolivia, Bigio concluded.

It is clear the Uribe regime does not want peace, but wishes to cynically use the FARC-held prisoners as political pawns, using the threat of “terrorism” to advance its agenda of staying in power on the back of increased militarisation and hostility to progressive movements — in Colombia and the region.

From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #757 9 July 2008.

1 Com:

Anonymous | July 08, 2008

your opinions of the situation in colombia are naive and uninformed. If the FARC serves as the "model" of left-wing movements, then it's time to take a step back and rethink the labels you can so easily apply without knowing the people or the situation in colombia.

Liberals in Colombia have no respect for the FARC and they have very little support from the people they claim to represent. They are nothing short of criminals and should be hunted down like the animals they are along with Chavez, the clown.

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