Bush, Rebel Chief Have Key Role to Play in Hostage Swap

U.S. President George W. Bush and the leader of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, "Manuel Marulanda", both have a key role to play in the search for a humanitarian hostage-for-prisoner swap in Colombia, according to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is attempting to broker an agreement for an exchange.

CARACAS, Sep 26 (IPS) – U.S. President George W. Bush and the leader of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, "Manuel Marulanda", both have a key role to play in the search for a humanitarian hostage-for-prisoner swap in Colombia, according to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who is attempting to broker an agreement for an exchange.

For the second time in a month, Chávez met late Tuesday in the seat of government with families of hostages being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to stress the sense of urgency surrounding the issue and the importance that he places on it. The meeting took place in a warm, casual ambience.

"The government of the United States could help, a lot. I hope we have the support of its institutions, and that President Bush can help us," said Chávez, leaving aside his antagonism towards the U.S. leader, who he even once called "the devil" during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

Chávez sat surrounded by the family members, including several children, of the three U.S. military contractors seized by the FARC in 2003: Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell.

Also taking part in the meeting were Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, appointed by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to facilitate an agreement for an exchange of imprisoned FARC guerrillas for hostages held by the rebel group; Catholic Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro (the head of Colombia’s bishops’ conference); and Darío Echeverri, secretary of the National Conciliation Commission, set up to help bring about peace talks in Colombia, which has been in the grip of a civil war for nearly half a century.

The so-called humanitarian agreement would involve the exchange of 45 or 46 hostages in the hands of FARC, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who holds dual French-Colombian citizenship, and the three U.S. military contractors, for some 500 imprisoned insurgents and two rebel leaders, "Simón Trinidad" and "Sonia", who were extradited to the United States and are in prison there.

The most likely scenario would be an exchange of hostages and prisoners in different groups, Colombian analyst Alfredo Rangel told IPS.

The three U.S. citizens, for example, might be exchanged for "Trinidad" and "Sonia". The second trial against Trinidad in the United States is winding up, and U.S. authorities would have to try to find a formula for deporting the two to Colombia.

Some observers add the name of Erminso Cuevas, supposedly the brother of a FARC leader. Cuevas was extradited by Uribe to the United States while Córdoba was on a visit there last week. He has been presented as a member of the insurgent group, although the FARC has not acknowledged him as a combatant.

Córdoba described his extradition as "an atomic bomb" against the negotiations for a prisoner-hostage swap.

Monsignor Castro explained that so far efforts at reaching an agreement have come up against "rigid conditions" set by the insurgents and the Uribe administration.

The rebels are demanding that part of the Colombian territory be "demilitarised" to create a safe haven for the exchange, a condition that is staunchly rejected by the government, which for its part insists that any guerrillas released from prison must not take up arms again.

Chávez, meanwhile, insisted on the need to personally speak with FARC chief Pedro Antonio Marín, alias Manuel Marulanda or "Tirofijo" (Sureshot), "who I have been looking for all over the map." The Venezuelan leader, a former paratroop commander, added that he has "a parachute ready, to drop in and visit him in the middle of the jungle."

However, a possible meeting between Chávez and Marulanda in Colombia was flatly ruled out by Uribe, and the rebel leader will not leave his country. But representatives of the FARC leadership are expected to arrive in Caracas to meet with the Venezuelan president on Oct. 8.

Uribe got together Tuesday in New York, where the U.N. General Assembly is meeting, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

While Sarkozy reiterated that he backs any efforts that may lead to the release of the hostages, especially Betancourt, Uribe set forth a new proposal: for U.S. lawmakers, Republicans as well as Democrats, to attend the Chávez-FARC meeting on Oct. 8.

"We must not forget that in this game, all of the different actors have cards up their sleeves and are watching out for their own interests while taking steps in the search for a humanitarian agreement," Alberto Garrido, who has written books about Chávez and about Colombia’s guerrillas, remarked to IPS.

"With this move, Uribe is trying to show the U.S. Congress that he is doing all he can to work towards a prisoner-hostage agreement and towards peace, just when the human rights situation in Colombia is being discussed in the legislature in Washington," Ana Julia Jatar, a political scientist who specialises in inter-American affairs, told IPS.

The analyst pointed out that Bogota is pressing the U.S. Congress to approve the bilateral trade agreement negotiated with the United States, "which is why Uribe is not only inviting the reluctant Democrats but a bipartisan committee, so they can certify his administration’s efforts to negotiate a solution to this chapter of Colombia’s armed conflict."

As soon as Uribe’s proposal was announced, political commentator Aristóbulo Istúriz, who served as education minister under Chávez for several years, warned that "the Colombian president is introducing a detonator that could blow the entire process out of the water."

Istúriz said "the U.S. legislators have every right to meet with representatives of the guerrillas, but a meeting between three sides is another thing."

Chávez, however, took what appeared to be a new obstacle in stride, and said it was "viable for the U.S. lawmakers to attend (the Oct. 8 meeting), although that will depend on whether the FARC accepts the proposal, because we cannot impose anything on anyone in this process."

Córdoba and Castro urged Chávez to persevere in his efforts to broker an agreement, despite the criticism he may receive. "I believe that with you, an agreement is possible, and that without you it will not be," the senator told the president, while the archbishop asked him to show "patience, prudence and passion, until the goal is achieved."

"Passion I have a great deal of; patience as well; prudence at times I lack," said Chávez, laughing, although he stressed that "I am not going to abandon this struggle," and said that "just as the FARC and the government have their non-negotiable, valid conditions, I also have one: a humanitarian agreement."

The insurgents, in the meantime, have continued to show their support for Chávez’s involvement in the process. On Tuesday, an enthusiastic statement to that effect came from the FARC’s "Caribbean front", while a letter from another FARC chief, "Raúl Reyes", was delivered to the president by Córdoba.

The senator urged the public to come to a rally in Caracas Tuesday to launch a campaign in support of the humanitarian agreement. But the event, which was held in a downtown theatre parallel to the meeting with the hostages’ families taking place in the seat of government, was only attended by a few dozen supporters of Chávez, who listened to the bands that were playing.

Córdoba announced that with Venezuela’s support, political rallies featuring live music would be held in New York, Paris, Caracas, Bogota and some city in Brazil, with the aim of drawing at least 100,000 people to each gathering in order to mobilise international public opinion in favour of the exchange.

Chávez embraced Howes’s oldest son, who is 15, gave soccer balls to Stansell’s four-year-old twins, and urged the families "to mobilise public opinion in the U.S. so the parents can hug their children."

The meetings will continue. Córdoba recalled that every four or five days he meets with Chávez’s ministers or associates to gauge the situation, while she is planning meetings with U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Leader in the House of Representatives.

Chávez said that as soon as he meets with the FARC representatives on Oct. 8 "somewhere in Venezuela," he will get together with Uribe. * With additional reporting by Constanza Vieira in Colombia.