Friday, January 4, 2008

Chavez's promised hostage release fizzles

Some friends in Venezuelans web forums were commenting that maybe Ingrid Betancourt, the key hostage, is not alive, and that is the reason this operation failed.
vdebate reporter.
January 2, 2008
Chávez’s Promised Hostage Release Fizzles, His Second Major Setback in Weeks
RIO de JANEIRO — Last week, Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, seemed on the verge of one of his biggest triumphs to date. Now, amid renewed acrimony with the Colombian leader, Álvaro Uribe, he is staring at his second major political defeat in just over a month.
Using his credibility as a former rebel leader, Mr. Chávez orchestrated a plan to release three hostages being held for years in the jungle by a Colombian guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.
Bristling with confidence, he assembled his allies in Latin America, including the former Argentine president, Néstor Kirchner, to witness a breakthrough in the decades-old conflict between the Colombian government and the FARC. The movie director Oliver Stone was part of a multinational group of observers that included diplomats from seven countries, including France and Switzerland.
Then on Monday, Mr. Chávez’s showman moment seemed to turn from history-making success into his latest failure.
For reasons that remain unclear, the FARC refused for four days to give the exact location of the hostages to Venezuelan helicopter pilots. Mr. Chávez read a letter from the rebel group late Monday that said the promised security conditions had not been met.
“This is an important defeat for Hugo Chávez’s regional agenda to promote his Bolivarian revolution and utilize his contacts with armed groups to win political influence,” said Román Ortiz, the director of security and post-conflict for the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Bogotá research institute focused on Colombia’s armed conflict.
A successful mission would have been likely to have embarrassed Mr. Uribe, a conservative who has made little progress in negotiating the release of any of the several hundred hostages held in jungle camps, some for nearly a decade. Mr. Uribe has been skeptical of Mr. Chávez’s attempts to spread his Socialist ideology across the continent.
At the same time, the operation would have helped Mr. Chávez bounce back from a narrow defeat in a referendum early last month on a proposal that would have tightened his grip on power. For several days, at least, Mr. Chávez and Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, also managed to divert attention from the brewing scandal involving a suitcase filled with $800,000 in cash believed to be a secret Venezuelan donation to her campaign.
Mrs. Kirchner dispatched her husband to Colombia, and several other countries joined in a scramble to claim credit for helping to break the impasse in the only armed conflict in the Western hemisphere.
But the FARC, which appeared to want to help Mr. Chávez while showing up Mr. Uribe, did not cooperate.
“Clearly, Chávez did provide the best chance for making some progress, but it wasn’t enough,” said Michael Shifter, a vice president at the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington. “In the end, the distrust that the FARC felt for the Colombian government trumped any good feelings they felt for Chávez.”
Mr. Uribe accused the FARC of lying about its reasons for scuttling the promised transfers, even suggesting that the rebels did not have one of the three hostages, a 3-year-old boy named Emmanuel who was born in captivity to a rebel soldier and Clara Rojas, another of the hostages. Ms. Rojas and Consuelo González were to have been delivered with the boy to the Venezuelans.
Hopes ran high that the transfer of the three hostages would lead to wider prisoner exchanges for more of the 700 hostages reportedly still in guerrilla hands. They are believed to include a former Colombian presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen kidnapped in 2002.
France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been lobbying for Ms. Betancourt’s release since videos and photos were seized late last month that apparently showed her alive. The materials also appeared to show that three American contractors, Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell, who were captured in 2003 when their plane went down in the Colombian jungle, were alive as well.
Now the failed mission has exposed Mr. Chávez to criticism of misplaced priorities. As he worked to mediate the release of hostages in Colombia, in Venezuela kidnappings are spiraling. Some estimates show that Venezuela has more abductions per capita than Colombia now, but the Venezuelan government has done little to tackle the problem.
The breakdown in the deal with the FARC led to a new round of harsh accusations between Mr. Chávez and Mr. Uribe. Mr. Chávez said he had “plenty of reasons to doubt Uribe’s team and their analysis and hypotheses.” He accused Mr. Uribe of trying to “dynamite” the operation, a claim Mr. Uribe denied.
Jenny Carolina González contributed reporting from Bogotá.

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