Colombia’s war and Venezuela’s foreign policy

The context of the recent release of the Colombian FARC hostages Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez and what Chavez was, and is, probably trying to achieve with his involvement in the negotiations.

[First published Jan 24/08. Updated Jan 29/08.]

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who has accused social
activists of 'terrorism', refused them protection against paramilitary
killers, and sent troops and police against protesters, has called for
a march against Colombia's guerrillas, the FARC, on February 4, 2008.
This government-organized initiative is an attempt to polarize the
country. To not join the march is to be accused of supporting
kidnapping and terrorism. This is also what the Colombian President
accuses Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, of, because Chavez helped
to negotiate the release of three Colombian hostages held by FARC.
Meanwhile, Uribe's war politics eclipse paramilitarism, the free trade
agreements and their destruction of Colombia's economy, the millions of
internally displaced, and the ongoing attack on social movements.

There has been some coverage in the US of the Colombian humanitarian
accord talks, brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, which
recently saw three of FARC's hostages released. In early January, the
NYT reported charges “flying” of Chavez's “failure” to achieve the
humanitarian accord. Ultimately the three hostages were released,
though Colombian officials, the US, and the mainstream press responded
by accusing Chavez of interfering in Colombia's internal affairs. This
article will explain the Colombian context and what Chavez was, and is,
probably trying to achieve with the humanitarian accord. The release of
the hostages was a very positive development, for reasons that will be
discussed below.

Colombia's war has gone on for decades. Some date it from 1964, when
the FARC was born out of a government offensive against Liberal
guerrillas. It is also possible to date it from 1948, when a Liberal
politician (Jorge Eliecer Gaitan) was assassinated beginning a wave of
political violence between Liberals and Conservatives that lasted for
years, killed hundreds of thousands, and displaced millions (called “La
Violencia”, which ended with the creation of a National Front in 1958
that shared power between the two parties). Peasants formed armed
groups to defend themselves and their lands from the bands of the
landlords and the military. The peasant groups became the guerrillas.
The landlords' bands, joined later by drug traffickers, became the
paramilitaries, who worked closely with the military and continued to
displace peasants, afro-Colombians, and indigenous people from their
lands and destroy social organizations and labor unions in the cities.
Paramilitarism, with its massacres and displacements, benefited
multinational corporations and landowners who ended up with the
resources and territories, and pacified populations.

The US has been involved in it from the beginning. Fr. Javier Giraldo,
author of “Colombia: the Genocidal Democracy”, argued that the
paramilitary strategy itself came from the US with “Mission
Yarborough”, begun by a visit of US General William Yarborough to
Colombia in 1962 (1). At the time, the US advocated the use of terror
to fight “communism” throughout Latin America, and trained and armed
Latin America's soldiers to do so, and did so itself, in places like
Cuba. In more recent decades, the US has given helicopters, sent
military “advisors”, and of course more recently dispatched private
contractors from MPRI, Dyncorp, and other mercenary companies (2).
Today, Phase II of Plan Colombia is evolving, with the same regional
targets (Venezuela and Ecuador), the same methods ("counternarcotics"
and counteirnsurgency) and the same brutal effects.

Each year of war has seen more people displaced, more assassinations
and massacres, and more control of the government and economy by
multinationals and paramilitaries. Because the main effects of the war
are suffered by the people, peace, through a political solution that
addresses the social injustices that fuel the war, is a popular idea in
Colombia. At several points in the war's long history, people have
mobilized for peace. The popular desire for peace is frustrating to
both armies in the civil war. The theory of guerrilla war suggests that
the people should mobilize with the guerrillas towards victory. The
government and the US counterinsurgency seeks to co-opt the people into
informing, isolating, and fighting the guerrilla.

Much hinges on the type of peace and what might be won through
negotiation. To demobilize, the guerrillas would require an end to
paramilitarism, reintegration for themselves, and social change. But
this would require a massive change. Past attempts by guerrillas to
negotiate or join the political process have ended with massacres of
demobilized guerrillas (the Union Patriotica in the 1980s was the most
dramatic, but other groups like M-19 had the same experience), so the
guerrillas have no reason to trust the establishment's good faith. The establishment can sincerely claim to want peace, but it seeks peace
through the destruction of the guerrillas and any other opposition
(social opposition is often publicly denounced as being “linked” to the
guerrillas and individuals are then targeted for murder by

Despite these factors, the popular desire for peace has forced the
establishment to negotiate with the guerrillas several times. The most
recent formal talks occurred in the late 1990s. Part of these talks was
the granting of a demilitarized zone around San Vicente de Caguan to
the FARC guerrillas. Plan Colombia was set in motion in this context,
while talks were ongoing and a demilitarized zone was in place. It was
first presented as a plan for peace, with aid money to flow to
agricultural programs and alternatives to the narcotics economy. It was
progressively rewritten and changed until it became a counterinsurgency
plan. Two years and several billion dollars later, in 2002, the
establishment felt strong enough to end negotiations and attack the
demilitarized zone. They capitalized politically on the FARC's most
unpopular tactics, such as their use of inaccurate bombs that kill
innocents, their kidnapping of civilians and declaring politicians and
social leaders military targets, in claiming the FARC was not serious
about peace. The FARC's abuses and their unresponsiveness to people's
needs has contributed to popular weariness with them.

When, in 2002, Alvaro Uribe Velez came to power in Colombia, the
prospects for a negotiated solution were reduced much more. With a
personal vendetta, a landowning background, and the governorship of one
of the most violent paramilitary states in his background, Uribe
constantly accused his political opponents of terrorism and pushed
through constitutional changes designed to hand more of the Colombian
economy over to multinationals. He initiated a 'peace process' with the
paramilitaries, essentially legalizing their thefts and murders, and in
recent years many of his political colleagues have ended up in jail for
working with paramilitary killers (3).

Plan Colombia and Uribe's rule were enough to kill the last attempt at
a political solution to the conflict. This outcome has served US
interests in the region in several ways. Within Colombia, as described
above, the war provides a pretext for attacking all social movements
and resistance, and a cover for displacing peasants from resource rich
territories that end up in the hands of multinationals and landowners.
More than this, however, Colombia's war and the close relationship
between the US and the Colombian military have provided the US with a
base from which to monitor, and attack, Venezuela, a major oil producer
with an independent political project of its own.

Chavez's rule in Venezuela coincides with the rise and fall of the last
peace process in Colombia. He came to power in 1998, the same year the
demilitarized zone was declared in Colombia. He was Venezuela's
President through the declaration of Plan Colombia in 2000 and its
implementation, and then through the years of Uribe's rule in Colombia.

Throughout those years, analysts have argued that one of the true
targets of Plan Colombia was in fact Venezuela, its oil, and its
revolutionary process (4).

And indeed, border incidents and troubles over the past several years,
as well as tensions between Chavez and Uribe, have shown that Colombia
is a base for attacks on Venezuela. In March 2003, Colombian
'irregulars' raided across the Venezuelan border and were answered by
bombing from the Venezuelan air force (5). About a year later (May
2004), dozens of Colombian paramilitaries were arrested on a ranch near
Caracas on a terrorist plot (6). Some later confessed and were charged,
while others were returned to Colombia. Around the same time as the
paramilitaries were infiltrating Venezuela (March 2004), Colombia made
a high-profile announcement that it was going to acquire several dozen
tanks, from Spain, for posting on the Venezuelan border (7). The deal
had been made under Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, however.

The socialist Prime Minister that replaced him, Jose Luis Rodriguez
Zapatero, was not an enemy of Venezuela's Bolivarian process and
cancelled the deal under Venezuelan pressure. Chavez and Uribe met
shortly after the cancellation of the deal, were photographed smiling
and embracing each other, and made jokes about the tanks (Uribe said:
“Please Hugo, lend me some little tanks?”) But then in December 2004,
the Colombian government kidnapped a FARC leader, Rodrigo Granda, from
Venezuela and took him back to Colombia. Venezuela could not allow this
violation of sovereignty and Chavez demanded an apology from Uribe.
Venezuela stopped sending power to Colombian towns, closed the border,
and declared that Colombians would henceforth need a visa to visit
Venezuela. That crisis cooled down by late January 2005, but the days
of friendly play in front of the cameras between Chavez and Uribe had

In 2007 Chavez got involved in trying to broker a humanitarian accord
between the government and FARC. Rodrigo Granda had been released by
the Colombian government and was helping to try to negotiate the
accord. With consent from the highest levels of Colombia's government
and in direct contact with Liberal (opposed to-Uribe) Senator Piedad
Cordoba, Chavez's initiative was to try to get talks going again.

first confidence-building measures would be the release of 45 of the
FARC's high-profile kidnap victims. The FARC wanted a return of a
demilitarized zone in the zones of Pradera and Florida and the release
of 500 FARC prisoners held in government jails. A humanitarian accord
was far from a political solution, but it was certainly a prerequisite
for one. In early November 2007 the FARC promised 'proof of life' for
its kidnapped prisoners, including the most famous one, Ingrid
Betancourt, a 2002 green party presidential candidate with dual-French
and Colombian citizenship who was kidnapped in the demilitarized zone.

At the end of November 2007, Uribe suddenly came out publicly against
the humanitarian accord. He went on television and said “We need
mediators against terrorism, not to justify terrorism.” The implication
was that Chavez was justifying terrorism. Chavez replied that Colombia
deserved a better President and that Uribe was “lying, openly and in an
ugly way”. This might have been the end of the story, with
Colombia-Venezuela relations “in the freezer” (Chavez's words), but it
was not. Instead, despite this setback and the referendum defeat in
December 2007 (8), the humanitarian accord talks with FARC had
continued. The “failure” of the accord was reported in the New York
Times as a defeat for Chavez. Consuelo Gonzalez later said that the
reason the hostages had not been released earlier, on December 31, was
because the Colombian military conducted operations near the site of
their release, preventing the release from occurring. Piedad Cordoba
suggested that "Uribe ordered the military operation in the zone
because things were going too well."

On January 9, 2008, Chavez announced that two women, Clara Rojas and
Consuelo Gonzalez, who had been kidnapped by FARC in 2002, had been
freed. Clara Rojas had been a vice-presidential candidate running with
Ingrid Betancourt (still held by FARC) in the 2002 election. Consuelo
Gonzalez had been a Colombian senator. Clara Rojas had given birth to a
boy (called Emmanuel in the press) in captivity, the son of one of her
captors. The boy had been left in front of a Colombia social services
office (Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar) just over a week
before, and was revealed later by DNA testing to be Clara Rojas's son.
The release of these individuals was welcomed in Colombia and
politically positive for Chavez. Uribe and Colombia's newspapers
reminded Colombians that hundreds of people were still in FARC's
custody. A video of Ingrid Betancourt herself was released as well,
from which a very sad photograph was extracted. While the release was
positive, the entire episode has reminded Colombians about FARC's
kidnapping practices. Clara Rojas offered a message from Spain: if the
FARC stop committing crimes and stop kidnapping, they ought to be
considered belligerents by the government and a negotiated solution
sought. The government's classification of the FARC as “terrorists” has
been a major impediment to peace as it has in other contexts. But so
too have FARC's practices of kidnapping civilians and declaring
individuals military targets. This issue will have to be dealt with
carefully for there to be a negotiated solution: impunity is recognized
as contributing to future crimes. The current 'peace process' with the
paramilitaries is recognized as a farce because it grants the
paramilitaries impunity. If Chavez is seen as trying to negotiate
impunity for the FARC, the move will be similarly unpopular.

The guerrilla organization itself has changed since Plan Colombia
began, becoming increasingly isolated from popular movements and
organizations and committing vengeful and predatory actions. Many who
acknowledge that the ultimate causes are the state, multinationals, and
US agendas and resist these are still fed up with FARC. If Chavez is
seen as too close to FARC, he could lose politically. The popularity of
a humanitarian accord and a negotiated solution stem from the popular
desire for peace, not from popular support for FARC, whose actions on
the case of the child hostage, Emmanuel, made Chavez look foolish: when
they released the boy, they did not tell Chavez they had.

Entering the Colombian conflict on this basis has been risky for
Venezuela, but it also seems to be very intelligent and principled
diplomacy. Venezuela could have responded to US and Colombian
provocations militarily, getting sucked into an arms race and
militarization, diverting resources and political capital from social
programs and social change to war preparations and militarism, perhaps
supporting FARC militarily. Or it could have capitulated to a show of
force. Instead, Chavez's government responded politically, taking
advantage of the popular desire for peace in Colombia and throughout
Latin America. Even though Uribe counts on some 5-6 million voters who
believe strongly in his anti-guerrilla politics, Colombia has 44
million people and most want peace despite Plan Colombia, despite
Uribe's tenure as President, and despite all US efforts to the
contrary. If Uribe and the US win, they will paint Venezuela as a
supporter of terrorist crimes and achieve what they sought, a pretext
to attack Venezuela, destroy the Bolivarian project, and strengthen
control of the region. Peace would give Venezuela's process time to
develop and Colombia's movements room to breathe. The stakes are high
for everyone involved.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and activist. He can be reached at [email protected].


1. I interviewed Giraldo on this in 2004: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=5156

2. For some excellent reporting on mercenary companies see Jeremy
Scahill's book “Blackwater” and Naomi Klein's “The Shock Doctrine”.

3. See my interview with Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo from 2007: http://www.en-camino.org/node/67

4. Hector Mondragon argued this in 2001: http://www.zmag.org/crisescurevts/colombia/hemon.htm

5. See my “What is the Colombian Army doing attacking Venezuela?”: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=3389

6. See my “Terrorist Plot Foiled!”: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=5499

7. See my “The Final Answer Will Be Given by the Tanks”: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=5742

8. See my: “Venezuela's referendum fails – for now” http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3277

Source: ZNet