While most of the world was bringing in the New Year, a political circus unfurled on the so-called Llanos Orientales. The drama involved heads of state, Hollywood directors, leftist guerillas and humanitarian agencies. The plot revolved around an attempt by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to secure the release of three hostages held by the FARC. While the initiative was cloaked in gestures of good will and cooperation, the plot was driven by duplicity, deception and manipulation. There were no good guys in this play, only rogues and innocent victims.
The scene opened in August, when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe invited President Chavez to commence negotiations with the FARC to secure the release of the political prisoners still held by leftist forces. The invitation took everyone by surprise. Chavez and Uribe are bitter rivals, firmly ensconced in the opposing poles of the political spectrum. However, Uribe was under pressure to shift the public’s attention away from the endless stream of scandals, accusations and investigations linking members of his administration to paramilitary forces. With the evidence showing his direct connection to the paramilitaries starting to mount, the Colombian leader needed to create a new focal point. However, the invitation to Chavez was risky, and it was heavily opposed by Washington. There were good reasons for the opposition. Colombia was the most important piece that was missing in Chavez’s so-called Bolivarian Revolution. With Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia firmly under his control, the incorporation of Colombia into the revolutionary movement would integrate most of the Andean region under his command. Peru would be the only missing piece. Given the results of the last presidential election, it would only be a matter of time until Peru would also fall into his orbit. Not surprisingly, Chavez’s popularity surged in Colombia as the Venezuelan leader promised to secure the release of the hostages. The 45 hostages are the last vestiges of the Colombian conflict. Therefore, the public is keen to see their release, bringing an end to the bloody civil war. Therefore, the public welcomed Chavez with open arms. He quickly dominated the Colombian airways and media channels. The cooperation of French President Sarkozy and other heads of state gave Chavez an air of legitimacy, erasing his recent blunders. Realizing the inroads that the Venezuelan leader was making, Uribe quickly threw hurdles into the process and eventually withdrew Chavez’s authority to negotiate their release. Of course, this infuriated the Venezuelan leader who was building a political foothold in his neighboring country. The FARC also wanted to keep the issue going. Therefore, they released videos and pictures showing that the hostages were alive. The Venezuelan leader immediately announced that the guerillas would release three of the hostages, setting in motion a caravan of international leaders and celebrities that would receive them on the eastern plains of Colombia. Former Argentine President Kirchner flew to Villavicencio, along with Hollywood director Oliver Stone and emissaries from Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and France. A fleet of Venezuelan helicopters and private jets, painted with the Red Cross insignia, were also dispatched to the llanos. The video images of President Chavez briefing what appeared to be a virtual military invasion of Colombia were repeatedly beamed into homes as the countdown to the New Year started, almost checkmating Uribe in the process. However, the Colombian president had one last move to make. The southern radius around Villavicencio, which was the most likely place where the release would take place, was quickly militarized, forcing the guerillas to melt back into the jungle and calling off the entire operation.
The hapless band of emissaries and journalist decamped from the eastern plains on New Year’s Eve, leaving Chavez in the lurch. For the icing on the cake, within hours of the failed rescue, Uribe released a report that one of the hostages who was to be released, a child born in captivity, had already been returned to Bogota. The report, which was passionately read by the Colombian president on national television, detailed the poor health of the child, as well as the abuse, neglect and torture that had been imparted on the infant. Although the baby had been in Bogota for two years, the atrocious condition of the child vilified the FARC, their associates and all of their actions—allowing Uribe to emerge the victor. In the end, the political ambitions of the leaders in Colombia and Venezuela drove the script, but the victims were the people whose hopes were stirred. The international humanitarian community, France and former President Kirchner were pawns in the drama. The aching aspirations of family members hoping to secure the release of their loved ones, and the desire of 44 million Colombians to see an end to a horrible war were tragically dashed.