For many years, Colombia's largest guerrilla group has held 45 high-profile hostages deep in the country's jungle. Even though the war between the government and the rebels is in a lull, and security in Colombia has greatly improved, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- known as FARC -- has refused to surrender its prized bargaining chips unless rebel prisoners are released.
The stakes are high because three of the captives are American defense contractors who were kidnapped in 2003 while working on an anti-drug program. French President Nicolas Sarkozy also has an interest in the situation because one of the hostages is a French-Colombian woman who was taken captive during her 2002 presidential campaign.
All previous negotiations to work out a hostage-prisoner swap have flopped. But now there is a chance that progress can be made at what would be a historic meeting in Caracas, Venezuela. Unfortunately, the host and potential broker of the talks is none other than Washington's major nemesis in South America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
What's going on here?
In early September, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Washington's closest ally in the region, invited Chavez to help negotiate a hostage-prisoner exchange between his government and FARC. Uribe's success in subduing the guerrilla group, reducing homicides and kidnappings and persuading many paramilitaries to give up their arms has made him enormously popular in Colombia. But he has come under mounting pressure, at home and abroad, to resolve the hostage problem. The mysterious killings in June of 11 former state legislators held by FARC devastated not only their families but much of the country as well.
But is Chavez the right man to help Uribe? Despite being ideological opposites, the two presidents have a surprisingly cordial relationship, with a record of cooperation on energy and economic issues. At $4 billion a year, Venezuela is Colombia's second-largest trading partner. And although many Colombians suspect that Chavez's sympathies lie with FARC, it is his legitimacy in the guerrillas' eyes that prompted Uribe, a consummate pragmatist, to take a chance with the Venezuelan.
To hedge his bets, Uribe has laid down three conditions. First, FARC will not get the demilitarized zone it badly wants just because it is willing to negotiate a hostage release. The previous government carved out such a zone as part of a peace effort, but FARC used it instead to rebuild its forces. Uribe was elected president in 2002 in large part because many Colombians believed the zone doomed the peace bid. Second, released prisoners must not return to criminal activity. And, finally, guerrillas cannot participate in the country's politics until they surrender their arms.
But in deciding to deal with Chavez and FARC, the Colombian president is taking a huge risk. For instance, if Chavez backs FARC's demands and Uribe doesn't go along, he could be portrayed as hopelessly obdurate and an obstacle to peace.
That may well be an acceptable risk for Uribe, however, because the release of the hostages, if it does come to pass, would be seen as a major triumph. And if the deal falls apart because FARC balks, Uribe can cast an international light on the guerrilla group's intransigence, which could strengthen his image at home as a staunch defender of security and an advocate for peace. It could also help Uribe in Washington, where some Democrats in Congress have criticized him for, among other things, allowing human rights abuses to continue in Colombia.
For its part, FARC is in no rush to agree to anything. If it gets another demilitarized zone, it can declare victory. If not, it at least can regain some international limelight and legitimacy by meeting with Chavez, a head of state.
For Chavez, the upside is obvious. The opportunity to break the long-festering hostage-prisoner impasse seems tailor-made for a man who is using his country's considerable oil wealth to finance an effort to build a Latin American alliance opposed to the United States. If Chavez can project the image of a regional leader committed to peace, that's all the better for his cause.
That's worrisome for Washington because Chavez will probably emerge a winner in many South American eyes regardless of the outcome of the hostage talks. William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador in Bogota, has simply said that Washington is prepared to listen to FARC's demands and would welcome any initiative that could lead to freedom for the hostages.
Many are justifiably skeptical about a dramatic breakthrough in Caracas. Still, even a limited exchange of hostages for prisoners would be an important advance that could, conceivably, pave the way for an eventual peace agreement with FARC, which has been fighting for more than four decades. In war-weary Colombia, the land of magical realism, stranger things have happened.