Dancing with Wolves

Dancing with Wolves

by Mary Anastasia O’Grady

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — aka Farc — holds some 3,000 hostages. But only one of those kidnap victims is important enough to have provoked the Colombian government to release a captured Farc leader, in the hopes that the terrorist group might reciprocate by handing over this very high-profile captive.Her name is Íngrid Betancourt, a Colombian-born, naturalized French citizen who has two French-born children. When she was a presidential candidate in Colombia in 2002, Ms. Betancourt went into the jungle to confront the Farc, against the advice of the government, the military and the police. The rebels grabbed her and she hasn’t been seen since. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made her case a priority for his new government, and it was he who pressured Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in June to free Farc bigwig, Rodrigo Granda, as a good-faith gesture toward Ms. Betancourt’s release.Not surprisingly, the effort produced no humanitarian response from the Farc. Instead, it murdered 11 hostages later that month. Now Mr. Uribe has agreed to allow Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a Farc ally, to mediate negotiations with the guerrillas. The hope is that the talks might free Ms. Betancourt and nearly 50 other “political” hostages — including former senators, a former governor, members of the military and police, and three Americans who were contractors for the State Department at the time of their capture.Olive branches for terrorists are not something Mr. Uribe keeps in his quiver, and for good reason. Appeasement in the past has only given the Farc the upper hand. When he became president in 2002, Mr. Uribe pledged to end negotiations and fight the Farc head on.That’s why his willingness to talk with the drug-running terrorists, with Mr. Chávez in the middle playing peacemaker, is so perplexing. One explanation is that the barrage of criticism from the Betancourt family, French activists, Democrats on Capitol Hill and political enemies at home has simply worn down Mr. Uribe. In other words, that Farc propaganda is beating him. But it is also possible that the Colombian president, fully aware of the dangers he faces in dancing with these wolves, believes the risks are worth taking.Ms. Betancourt has become a cause célèbre in Paris. Her face is plastered all over town and the mayor has pledged to fight “unceasingly” for her release. With French diplomat Daniel Parfait married to Ms. Betancourt’s sister, the national government is also involved. On his first day in office, Mr. Sarkozy met with Íngrid’s daughter and later phoned Mr. Uribe to lobby for the release of Granda.Colombian public opinion favors a deal to free these hostages, some of whom have been held for 10 years. Mr. Uribe and his policies remain popular, but the nation is sensitive, too, to the plight of the victims’ families, who live tortured lives of worry about their loved ones.Given these circumstances, Mr. Chávez’s offer to act as a negotiator could have easily undermined Mr. Uribe at home and abroad. The Venezuelan probably expected to be turned down, leaving Mr. Uribe looking uncooperative. Instead, Bogotá took him up on the proposal.Colombia says that whatever can be done to win freedom for the hostages is worth pursing, including an exchange of hostages for captured Farc terrorists. But not without conditions. Off the table is the guerrilla demand for the return of rebels Simon Trinidad and Nayibe “Sonia” Rojas. Both have been extradited to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges and Mr. Uribe says they cannot be considered part of any deal.There are other conditions. First, in any talks the three Americans must be considered part of the group. A Colombian senator who visited Ms. Rojas in a Texas jail reported that the former Farc guerrilla says that she does not want to become an obstacle to the release of the Americans and that her conditions in prison are far better then theirs in Colombia.Second, any Farc rebels released will have to agree to put down their weapons or go to a third country. This might not go down well with the Farc leadership, but if the past is any guide, it would not be an especially high hurdle to clear. Most of the prisoners Mr. Uribe has released during his time as president have happily abandoned narcotrafficking.Third, Mr. Uribe insists that the government will not surrender any part of the country to the Farc. That was tried during the government of Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) as a way to work toward peace, but the guerrillas used their “safe haven” to store weapons, build bombs, train recruits, hold hostages and otherwise execute their war on the Colombian people.Mr. Chávez can hardly be considered an honest broker here. But by putting the ball back in the Chávez court, Mr. Uribe may be the more clever negotiator. It is an open secret in Colombia that if Mr. Chávez wants to succeed, he can do so because he has the power to damage the Farc. The terrorists have camps in Venezuela, which is now their main trafficking route for cocaine, and they move in and out of the country to dodge Colombian forces. If Mr. Chávez fails, his credibility and image will be again damaged internationally.On the other hand, if the negotiations succeed, Mr. Uribe will have shown that he is attentive to the suffering of the Colombian people and is not too proud to cooperate with his Venezuelan neighbor.Not a bad strategy. But not one without risks, the highest being the possibility that the media, with the help of the Betancourt family, will continue to paint Mr. Uribe as the villain for not being ready to give in to the Farc’s demands. Yet if that happens, he won’t be much worse off than he has been for the past five years. And through it all, he has improved Colombian security like no president before him.Source: Wall Street Journal

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