New hope blooms for Colombia prisoner exchange

The gratitude two liberated Colombian hostages displayed as they set foot on Venezuelan soil raised hopes that the long sought-goal of humanitarian prisoner exchange in Colombia might gain new life.

Clara Rojas, a 44-year-old lawyer, former vice-presidential running mate and assistant to presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who remains a hostage, had been seized by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in February 2002. Ex-Congressperson Consuelo Gonzalez, 57 years old, had been captured six months earlier.

The FARC, said to field 20,000 guerrilla combatants, has engaged U.S.-backed conservative governments serving business and landowning interests since 1964. The Marxist insurgency controls an estimated 40 percent of Colombian territory.

The FARC now holds 44 high-profile hostages, some for over ten years, along with an estimated 700 captured Colombian soldiers. The possibility of exchanging the hostages for at least 500 FARC guerrillas in Colombian Army hands has long been seen as a necessary first step in any peace negotiations between the rebels and the Colombian state.

High Colombian leaders, most recently Bush protégé President Alvaro Uribe, have said that to free the hostages, they will only rely on military rescue, called “blood and fire” in the Colombian press. Keen on preserving their loved ones’ lives, hostage families reject such plans.

Their pressure and intercession from foreign capitals — notably the French government, concerned about Colombian-French citizen Betancourt — induced President Uribe last August to appoint leftist Senator Piedad Cordoba as facilitator and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as mediator in a renewed prisoner release effort.

President Chavez focused on direct contacts with FARC leaders. He and Cordoba apparently skirted negotiations over establishing demilitarized zones in Colombia where talks and eventual prisoner exchanges could take place safely. That phase of their work ended in November when Uribe dismissed Chavez as mediator.

His and Cordoba’s efforts continued, however, with the result that in late December, amidst media hoopla and with foreign diplomats looking on, two helicopters flew into Colombia to wait for FARC instructions about another landing field where Gonzalez, Rojas, and Rojas’ three-year-old son Emmanuel, born in captivity, could be picked up.

Instructions were never communicated, and the mission was called off. President Uribe attributed the FARC no-show to the guerrillas’ failure to produce Emmanuel, whom the government demonstrated had been lodged in a Bogota orphanage since eight months of age. The FARC accused the government of spooking its hostage delivery team with military threats.

Once in Caracas, both women told the media that in December, Colombian soldiers had closely monitored their trek through the forest with their captors to the helicopter rendezvous. “Our lives were in danger,” Rojas said.

They expressed gratitude to President Chavez, described by Gonzalez as “an extraordinary, democratic person, committed to life.” She advised him to “not let down his guard” in working for prisoner exchange. The two women said their lives henceforth would be dedicated to the liberation of prisoners and to peace in Colombia.

Chavez called upon world governments to recognize the FARC and the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s other rebel group, as “insurgent forces, that have a political, Bolivarian project that is respected here,” not as terrorists. He told Consuelo Gonzalez that “the resurrection of Grand Colombia comes via peace in Colombia and unity of this immense territory.”

Three U.S. congresspersons, led by James McGovern (D-Mass.), have been in contact with families of the remaining hostages. El Tiempo newspaper reports he is willing to negotiate with the FARC on their behalf, if authorized by the Colombian government.

atwhit @ roadrunner.com