Almost unanimously the international community has praised the audacious rescue on 2 July of Ingrid Betancourt, three US defence contractors and 11 Colombian police and soldiers. The success of the rescue, however, will add weight to President Alvaro Uribe’s arguments in favour of a military solution to the country’s conflicts, thereby undermining hopes of a peaceful solution to almost four decades of war between the government and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Uribe came first to power in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006 with promise to be "heavy handed". Since then he has implemented a hardline national policy euphemistically called "democratic security". Among other measures, he has increased the military budget, updated the army warfare equipment and launched a massive aggressive military offensive to recover zones controlled by the guerrilla.
The Colombian president is a hardliner when it comes to the FARC. His father was killed by the guerrilla group in a botched kidnap attempt. While governor of the central northwest department of Antioquía, Uribe established a military self-defence group euphemistically called Convivir (Cohabit). This group soon metamorphosed into a brutal paramilitary terrorist entity linked to drug trafficking and was responsible for the massacre of hundreds of civilians.
His "no negotiation" approach has been not only popular among the Colombian electorate, but also among the armed forces – the key guardians of the Colombian low intensity democratic system. Repeatedly Uribe has made it clear he won’t negotiate with the guerrillas. A string of incidents have revealed he is even willing to boycott negotiation attempts by third parties.
Prior to the 2 July rescue mission, several efforts were made to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict and to free hostages. Most of these attempts involved high-ranking guerrilla leaders and special envoys from the Spanish, Swiss and French Governments.
On 13 December, 2004, members of the Colombian security apparatus kidnapped Rodrigo Granda from Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. A FARC negotiator, Granda had been in direct talks with French and Swiss envoys to obtain the release of Betancourt. President Uribe, aware of the negotiations, ordered the abduction of Granda, boldly sabotaging the release of hostages.
The same year, as French and Swiss envoys were readying to meet with high-ranking guerrilla leaders, one of FARC’s camps was subjected to heavy bombardment. Needless to say, the Europeans walked out empty handed.
Even more recently, just days before the 2 July military rescue, the new leader of the FARC, Guillermo León Sáenz proposed "direct contact" with President Uribe for the "humanitarian exchange of hostages." In the communiqué, Sáenz said the FARC would insist on achieving a "peaceful democracy through civilised dialogue."
But Uribe would not negotiate. The rescue mission of 2 July has not only endorsed Uribe’s "democratic security" policy but has also brought him considerable political kudos. His popularity is at 91 per cent and he is seeking a third term in 2010. To be eligible for election, he will have to amend the constitution. His current popularity is such that this is not an insurmountable obstacle.
Uribe’s military option and political ambition have powerful backers. The US is a key supporter of Colombia’s regime. For more than 50 years Colombia has been the most important strategic ally of the US in Latin America. After Israel and Egypt, Colombia is the third largest recipient of US military aid. Since 2000 it has received over U$5.4 billion in assistance.
The radicalisation of the Colombian conflict has been instrumental to Washington’s policy for the region. Colombia is a key site for the US military presence in Latin America and has become even more important since most of the democratically elected governments in the region have moved to the left.
President Uribe, a member of the ultra Catholic fundamentalist order of Opus Dei, is one of a long list of Colombian leaders who have ruled the country since the 1970s under the banner of the Frente Nacional (National Front). A political alliance of conservative liberal forces, National Front leaders have alternated in power, giving the country a misleading image of democracy. The armed forces play a key role in this arrangement, the central ideological support of which is the infamous National Security Doctrine.
The brainchild of the US, the National Security Doctrine has given the state carte blanche to implement any means to annihilate the left wing insurgency in the region. Effectively, this doctrine endorsed state terrorism. Hernando Calvo de Espina is a well-known Colombian journalist and author now based in Paris. In his book State Terrorism in Colombia, he argues his homeland is ruled by a state terrorist system formed by an "oligarchic alliance" of conservative forces supported by the armed forces, drug trafficking and the Pentagon. While the National Security Doctrine has lost currency in other Latin American nations, Colombia remains its last guarantor.
The 2 July rescue not only demonstrated Uribe’s strength, it also revealed the FARC to be in terrible shape. "The end of the guerrilla has begun," said José Insulza, the General Secretary of the American State Organization (OEA). "But there is a long way to go."
Insulza is certain the end of the FARC depends on its disposition to negotiate. And here is where the problem lies. President Uribe won’t negotiate – or at least, he will only negotiate with a militarily defeated guerrilla force.
Perhaps he won’t need to wait for long. In the last five years the FARC has suffered a steady military decline. Half of its fighters – who numbered around 18,000 in 2002 – have been killed or deserted. Last March, the guerrilla group lost three of its leaders, including Manuel Marulanda and Raúl Reyes.
The guerrilla force has also lost endorsement from the ultimate Latin American guerrillero, Fidel Castro. The former Cuban president called on the FARC to end its operations. "The armed struggle is a thing of the past," he said. A similar note was sounded by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez when he said the "days of the rifles have passed".
Four decades of war have left thousands of Colombians displaced. Of major concern is the integration of FARC’s fighters into civil life. It won’t be an easy process. Past attempts have shown that the integration of guerrillas into the democratic process can produce violent results. Between 1984 and 1989, thousands of FARC members abandoned the armed struggle and joined the political system. Many of them were elected to congress and local municipalities. However, several became victims of State-sponsored paramilitary death squads. It is estimated that during the 1980s over 5000 demobilised guerrilla fighters were murdered.
In spite of the rescue of Betancourt, there is no rosy future for Colombia, a country where people are up to their necks in blood. The code name for the rescue of 2 July was Operación Jaque — checkmate — but the present situation better resembles a bloody stalemate.
The waning power of FARC is one thing. Rebuilding the social fabric of this injured society will pose quite another challenge.
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