The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) plan to release "within days or weeks" four Colombian ex-legislators who have been held hostage for as many as five years, the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner announced after meeting Wednesday evening with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in Caracas.
Two weeks ago, Chávez announced the names of three of the lawmakers to be released, Gloria Polanco, Eladio Pérez, and Orlando Beltrán. Yesterday, he told Kouchner that the identity of a fourth hostage will be revealed soon.
The hostage release represents "important progress" and is a "synonym of hope, strengthening the path toward peace," said Kouchner, who will now head to meetings with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in Bogotá.
The motive of the meetings is "to accelerate the process of liberation of hostages by the FARC, with the important mediation of President Chávez and the Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba," Kouchner communicated to Colombian newspapers. Chávez and Kouchner also debated proposals for a multi-state negotiating group for humanitarian exchange and peace accords in Colombia, an idea which Kouchner will now discuss with Uribe.
According to the Colombian government the FARC currently hold over 700 civilian, military, and political hostages, one of whom is Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen who was running for the French Presidency at the time of her 2002 kidnapping. French President Nicolás Sarkozy has made the release of Betancourt a top priority of his administration, and this month marks six years since her capture.
Three months ago, Uribe expelled Chávez from negotiations with the FARC for allegedly violating the rules by directly contacting a Colombian army general. Uribe had invited Chávez the previous August to facilitate the release of 45 high-profile hostages in exchange for 500 guerrilla prisoners.
Despite Uribe's stance, Chávez and Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba negotiated with the FARC a unilateral release of two Colombian ex-lawmakers, Clara Rojas and Consuelo González, who were delivered to Venezuelan officials on January 10th of this year.
After a recent tour of Europe, Uribe invited the Catholic Church, Spain, Switzerland, and France to participate in negotiations with the FARC. But last week, the guerrillas rejected the involvement of Spain and the Church. According to FARC leader Raúl Reyes, Spain and the Church "excluded themselves, for taking sides in favor of the government of Álvaro Uribe." Spanish President José Luis Zapatero has reportedly offered military aid to Uribe's administration.
Colombia's ex-president Ernesto Samper, who also dealt extensively with the FARC during his term, speculated last week that Uribe must now either give in to the FARC's demands or improve relations with President Chávez if he wants more hostages to be freed.
Relations between Venezuela and Colombia have been strained in recent weeks by a series of disputes. Chávez argues that Uribe is connected to the increased amount of Colombian paramilitary activity in Venezuela, while Uribe accuses Chávez of providing material support to the FARC and permitting guerrillas to cross over into Venezuela.
Also, Uribe and his White House allies opposed Chávez's proposal to remove the FARC from terrorist lists and be granted political recognition, which would subject the FARC to the Geneva human rights protocols and open a framework for dialogue, according to Chávez's announcement on the government television channel.
Last weekend, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro summoned Colombian Ambassador Fernando Marín to a private meeting and expressed that he was "bothered" by U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield's recent accusation that Venezuela is facilitating increased drug trafficking in recent years. Maduro pointed out that the U.S. has the highest rate of drug consumption in the world and said Venezuela should not be blamed for the U.S.'s "vices" and "moral decomposition".
Kouchner expressed hope for the progress of multilateral negotiations yesterday, highlighting that his "productive, friendly" meeting in Venezuela "justifies the fact that we are here and we will continue to be here."
Lucy Gechem, a former FARC hostage, reported that Senator Córdoba told her that her husband Jorge, who is still captive, "is going to be released soon," leading to speculations that Mr. Gechem is the fourth hostage to be released in coming days. Córdoba, however, denied the claim on the Caracas-based Latin American news network Telesur, and affirmed that the FARC will announce that decision.
Meanwhile in Colombia, the Victims of State Crimes Movement is organizing a demonstration on March 6th for the defense of human rights and against paramilitaries such as the United Self-Defenses of Colombia (AUC). The protest, which comes a month after a large anti-FARC demonstration promoted by the Uribe government, has been endorsed by human rights organizations from Argentina, Belgium, Chile, Germany, the United States, Spain, university groups in Mexico, and the Landless Movement (MST) in Brazil, according to Venezuelan news reports.