BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — It might sound like mere semantics. But when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proposed this month that Colombia's largest rebel group be recognized as "belligerents," not terrorists, the reverberations reached to Washington and Europe, and relations between the two Latin American nations plunged to what one observer called perhaps the lowest point in their history.
Chavez has appealed to European and South American nations to strike the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and a smaller rebel group known by its Spanish initials, ELN, from their lists of terrorist groups.
The rebels should be viewed as "belligerents," Chavez said, a change that could open the way for diplomatic recognition of the groups -- at least by Venezuela. The FARC, he said, is an "insurgent" force with legitimate political aims.
The terrorist appellation "has just one cause: pressure from the United States," said Chavez, a fierce opponent of President Bush and his policies.
Most European, Central and South American countries gave Chavez the cold shoulder. But the Venezuelan National Assembly on Thursday, in a near unanimous vote, approved a resolution to grant the FARC belligerent status.
The bill's sponsor, deputy Saul Ortega, told reporters in the capital, Caracas, that the resolution has no legal effect, neither granting the FARC diplomatic status nor safe passage in Venezuela. It was merely a show of support for Chavez, he said.
But the Colombian government bitterly protested what it viewed as interference in its affairs. Colombian officials worry that Venezuela might take the further step of recognizing the rebels as a "state in formation," a status that France and Mexico granted the Sandinista rebels during the Nicaraguan civil war in the late 1970s.
Such a move would mean "giving the FARC diplomatic immunity, asylum rights, Venezuelan passports, and freedom from extradition," said former Colombian Defense Minister Rafael Pardo, now a consultant based in Bogota, the capital. "They would be giving the FARC a legitimacy, and that's very grave."
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe arranged an emergency trip to several European capitals this week to make the case to leaders that the FARC is a terrorist organization.
The difference in terminology is important. In the United States, groups on the State Department's roll of "foreign terrorist organizations" are pariahs, and individuals who have dealings with them are committing crimes.
Members of these organizations are subject to arrest without habeas corpus rights, or those accorded by the Geneva Convention.
The FARC has been on the U.S. government's terrorist list since 1997 for reasons some thought were obvious. Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst and now a counter-terrorism expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it fits the classic definition of a terrorist organization that targets civilians to achieve political ends.
Among the 41 other groups on the State Department's list are Al Qaeda, Peru's Shining Path, the Basque group ETA and Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
"To me there is no debate. They engage in other horrible crimes such as narco-trafficking that only makes them a worse problem," Levitt said of the FARC.
FARC rebels are thought to hold captive for barter or ransom about 700 civilians they have kidnapped in the last decade. Over the course of a 40-year war, they have killed hundreds of local and national politicians who didn't share their views.
In many areas of Colombia where they control the drug trade, rebels force poor farmers to grow coca. They burn vehicles that use roads they say are off-limits and deploy car bombs that sometimes kill passersby.
To qualify for "belligerent" status, experts say an armed group must control territory, have a unified command, demonstrate the capacity to carry out military operations and observe basic human rights.
Various governments and human rights groups contended last week that the FARC neither controls territory in Colombia nor does it respect human rights, so it shouldn't qualify as a belligerent group.
Chavez's appeal came as a surprise, even though he has expressed sympathy for the rebels' cause. The FARC and ELN are "true armies that occupy real space in their country," the president said in a speech to Venezuelan lawmakers on Jan. 11. The day before, rebels had released two hostages to Venezuelan emissaries in eastern Colombia. Chavez tried to sell his idea of changing the FARC's status as a way of securing the release of more hostages.
The Chavez government's sympathies were apparent in the videotaped coverage of the hostages' release. Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin told FARC rebels, "We are with you. . . . Be strong. We are following your cause."
Relations between Venezuela and Colombia have deteriorated since November, when Uribe declared that Chavez had broken protocol and abruptly ended the Venezuelan president's mediation role with the FARC, in which he tried to arrange a comprehensive release of hostages.
With the redesignation of the FARC's status, Pardo, the former defense minister, said relations between the two countries "may be at their lowest point in history."