Caracas, April 28, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to discuss a proposal for the release of three U.S. citizens held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), at Miraflores President Palace on Saturday.
Richardson said the meeting with Chavez was “very productive”, “I achieved the two things I came to do,” he added. “First, Chavez has agreed to work with me as a primary mediator. But he won't be the only one, obviously. And second, he said he was ready to help re-engage in negotiations.”
Earlier on Saturday Chavez had said he did not know “if I'm going to be able to continue helping.”
Last year Chavez played a central role in negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC for a humanitarian exchange of 45 high profile prisoners for 500 guerrillas held in Colombian jails, after being invited to mediate by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
However, claiming that the Venezuelan president had broken diplomatic protocols, Uribe abruptly terminated Chavez’s mediating role in November, leading to increased tensions between the two countries.
As a “gesture of apology” the FARC unilaterally released six prisoners, in two separate operations, to the Venezuelan government earlier this year.
Only days after the guerrillas released four prisoners on February 27, the Colombian military responded with an illegal bombing raid on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory on March 1, during which FARC second-in-command Raul Reyes – charged with coordinating the humanitarian exchange – was killed.
Chavez affirmed on Sunday that his government has lost all contact with the FARC since Colombia’s illegal raid which sparked a regional crisis between Colombia and its neighbours Ecuador and Venezuela.
“We lost the contact we had with the FARC,” Chavez said during his weekly television program, Alo Presidente. “We had elaborated a communications system but it was pulverized.”
Colombia claimed after the raid that documents allegedly found on laptops belonging to the FARC showed that Chavez planned to provide US$300 million to the guerrilla group – a claim that has not been backed up by Interpol experts investigating the documents and which has been emphatically rejected by the Venezuelan government.
Richardson, a former U.S. presidential candidate, U.N. ambassador, energy secretary, and congressman from New Mexico, has previously negotiated the release of US citizens held in North Korea, Iraq, and Sudan.
The Democratic governor clarified, however, that while he had the backing of the Bush administration he was not an official envoy of the U.S government, but was working on behalf of the families of the FARC prisoners.
Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes, all U.S. Defense Department contractors were captured by the FARC in 2003 when their spy plane crashed in the Colombian jungle.
Richardson said he was focusing on the release of the US prisoners but also hopes to assist others such as French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt, who has been held by the FARC for 6 years and is reported to be in poor health.
“I'm concerned for [her] health,” he said. “In a conflict like this it’s easy to forget that human beings with families are suffering and sick and need to be taken out of there.”
Richardson also met with Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, who together with Chavez played a central role in negotiation the release of six FARC prisoners earlier this year, as well as Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Nicolás Maduro and Venezuelan Ambassador to Cuba, Alí Rodríguez Araque, whom he described as his friend, and with the US Ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy.
Earlier this month, a French mission – backed by Spain and Switzerland – to Colombia, which aimed to provide medical assistance and the possibly free Betancourt, was called off by French President Nicholas Sarkozy after the guerrillas said that they would not unilaterally release any more hostages as a result of the murder of Reyes.
President Uribe has ruled out any future participation by Chavez in negotiations for a humanitarian accord. But FARC spokesperson Ivan Marquez said on Sunday that Betancourt’s mother “sees in Chavez the only hope, and she's right.”
“The mediation of Chavez was the only thing that gave concrete results,” he added.