Venezuela To Receive Three More Hostages Held By Colombian Rebels

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez confirmed on Monday that Venezuelan authorities are ready to carry out the rescue operation of three former Colombian legislators soon to be released by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Relatives of hostages awaiting their return in Caracas (ABN)

Caracas, January 5, 2008, ( – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez confirmed on Monday that Venezuelan authorities are ready to carry out the rescue operation of three former Colombian legislators soon to be released by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Relatives of the hostages arrived in Caracas yesterday to await the release of their family members.

"They have said they want to hand them over to Venezuela. We are ready. We urge the FARC to continue giving demonstrations of this type, independently of the attitudes of the Colombian government that is subordinated to the United States, independently of the warmongering character of that government," Chavez said during a speech to commemorate a civil-military rebellion he led in 1992.

The FARC released a statement on Saturday where they said they would unilaterally release the three ex-congress members, Gloria Polanco de Losada, Luis Eladio Perez and Orlando Beltran, for health reasons and as a gesture of "recognition for the persistent efforts to achieve a humanitarian accord by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Senator Piedad Cordoba." However, they did not give the exact date for the release.

Chavez and Cordoba, at the behest of the Colombian government, were mediators in the search for a humanitarian accord that aimed to achieve the exchange of 45 high profile hostages held by the FARC for 500 guerrillas held in Colombian jails, from August until November last year, when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe abruptly terminated the mediation saying Chavez had broken diplomatic protocols.

Despite the rift, Chavez successfully brokered the release of Colombian politicians Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez de Perdomo on January 10 after the FARC decided to liberate them as gesture of "apology" to Chavez and Cordoba for the actions of the Colombian government.

However, tensions between the Venezuelan and Colombian governments increased when Chavez then called for the removal of the FARC from U.S. and E.U. lists of terrorist organizations and to instead grant them "belligerent status." The Colombian government reacted angrily, claiming Chavez's call constituted "interference," in Colombian affairs.

The decision by the FARC to release a second round of hostages came only days before a massive demonstration on February 4 against FARC kidnappings in Colombia and overseas heavily promoted by the Colombian government.

Initially the anti-FARC demonstration was promoted on the internet networking site Facebook. Toby Muse writing for AP commented, "For weeks, invites to the march flew through cyberspace, mainly among the typically young – and relatively wealthy – who crowd Facebook in a country where only about one in four can afford to use the Internet regularly."

While the demonstration was portrayed as simply a "spontaneous" and "independent" initiative of ordinary citizens, it was heavily funded and promoted by big business and the Colombian state. All major radio, television and newspaper outlets in Colombia provided free advertising in the days leading up to the march, the Colombian stock exchange closed down, employers pressured workers to attend, and the Colombian government closed down schools and public services for the day. Colombian embassies also organized the demonstrations overseas and the Colombian government paid journalists in Paris, Tokyo, and Dubai to promote the rallies.

The key slogans of the march were, "No more kidnappings, no more FARC!" However, many Colombians criticized the narrow focus of the march for being one-sided and not taking up the question of the violence and kidnappings carried out by rightwing paramilitary death squads.

In addition to the 45 high profile hostages, the Colombian government alleges that the FARC also hold a further 700 hostages for extortion. However, there are more than 3,000 hostages held in Colombia, the majority by paramilitary groups. Critics have also pointed out that the march was organized and dominated by Colombia's wealthy middleclass. Maria Jimena Duzan, a columnist for the Colombian daily El Tiempo wrote, "I doubt that the victims of the paramilitaries have their own select club on Facebook," – the victims of the paramilitaries tend to be concentrated in Colombia's impoverished countryside.

The center-left political party, Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA), (Alternative Democratic Pole), along with a number of trade unions held a separate rally in Bogotá on the same day under the slogan "For the humanitarian agreement: no war, no kidnapping."

Relatives of the hostages also criticized the march for "promoting hate" and polarizing the country and said it does not represent them. Instead, they gathered in the Colombian church Voto Nacional to pray for the release of the hostages. Astrid Betancourt, sister of Ingrid Betancourt, former presidential candidate of Colombia held by the FARC since 2001, accused Uribe of "manipulating the pain of the families."

Uribe used the opportunity to call for the eradication of the FARC "from Colombian soil" and to push forward with military plans, including the enclosing of the insurgent camps where the 45 hostages are held. These statements contrast sharply with the ones issued by hostage's relatives and many humanitarian movements and peace promoters, who demand Uribe to desist from a military rescue which would put the lives of the hostages in danger.

Relatives of the hostages have repeatedly called for the reinstatement of Chavez as a mediator due to his leftwing credentials with the FARC. However, the anti-FARC demonstration yesterday featured a significant anti-Chavez/anti-Venezuela component, with many marchers carrying placards in English and Spanish that read, "Chavez go home," and "No to communism, no to Chavez, no to the FARC."

Venezuelan opposition parties also held a 3,000-strong anti-FARC demonstration in Chacao, a relatively wealthy suburb in Caracas on Monday.