Washington's foreign policy establishment - and much of the U.S. media -- was taken by surprise this week when President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela stated that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) should lay down their arms and unconditionally release all of their hostages. The FARC is a guerrilla group that has been fighting to overthrow the Colombian government for more than four decades.
Chávez's announcement should not have come as a surprise, because he had already said the same things several months ago.
On January 13, for example, Chávez said: I do not agree with the armed struggle, and that is one of the things that I want to talk to Marulanda (the head of the FARC who died last March) about. Chávez also stated his opposition to kidnapping, and has made numerous public appeals for the FARC to release their hostages.
Chávez had also explained previously that the armed struggle was not necessary because left movements could now come to power through elections, something that was often difficult or impossible in the past because of political repression.
The surprise in U.S. policy and media circles is a result of a misconception of Chávez's recent role in Colombia's conflict. A comparison: former President Jimmy Carter has recently called upon the United States to negotiate with Hamas - dismissed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and its allies in Israel and Europe. Carter is not an advocate of Hamas nor of armed struggle. He has met with Hamas and called for negotiations because he is trying to promote a peace settlement.
The same has been true for Hugo Chávez in the Colombian conflict. This is how Chávez's role has been seen by the families of the FARC's hostages (including U.S. military contractors), Colombian anti-violence activists, the governments of Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and almost every other state in the region, and also in Europe. None of these people (including FARC kidnapping victims) or governments are admirers of the FARC. They have strongly supported Chávez's efforts, including but not limited to his success this year in gaining freedom for six hostages that were held by the FARC.
But for Washington and its right-wing allies in Colombia, Chávez and the FARC have become comrades in arms. The media has honed in on about two or three positive statements uttered by Chávez about the FARC (out of thousands of hours of his speeches) to describe Chávez as a staunch FARC supporter (Time Magazine, June 9). Yesterday the Associated Press reported, falsely, that Chávez had five months ago been urging world leaders to back their [the FARC's] armed struggle.
The U.S. State Department has even said it would consider placing Venezuela on its short list of state sponsors of terrorism. This is unlikely in an election year, since Venezuela is our fifth largest oil supplier and the Republicans are already getting enough political headaches from gasoline at $4.00 a gallon.
For at least six years the Bush Administration has tried to make it look like Chávez and his government have been arming, funding, and otherwise supporting the FARC.
Until March of this year, Washington had supplied no evidence, documentary or otherwise, of such support. News articles containing such allegations were for years based on anonymous sources. But on March 1 the Colombian military bombed and invaded a FARC camp in Ecuador, killing more than two dozen people. These included FARC commander Raul Reyes, who was also the chief negotiator for the release of high-profile hostages held by the FARC, and some non-combatants. The incursion was condemned by governments throughout the hemisphere, except for the United States and Colombia.
The Colombian military claims to have captured eight computer exhibits, including laptops and flash drives, during the attack. Since March, the Colombian government has been releasing various files that allegedly come from this equipment, claiming that these files and communications indicate that Venezuela's government has been supporting the FARC. The government also alleged, on the basis of these files, that the FARC had helped finance the 2006 electoral campaign of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa. Both Venezuela and Ecuador have contemptuously dismissed the charges, with President Correa arguing that the computers and equipment did not even originate in the FARC camp.
On May 15, the international law enforcement organization INTERPOL released a report that was widely described as having authenticated the computer files. But the report is ambiguous. In one part it says, INTERPOL found no evidence that user files were created, modified or deleted on any of the eight seized FARC computer exhibits following their seizure on 1 March 2008 by Colombian authorities.
This doesn't say that files weren't altered or added, only that INTERPOL found no evidence that they were. But according to computer security experts it is not so difficult to alter or add files without leaving fingerprints. The experts I talked to want to know: how did INTERPOL decide that they could tell whether files had been tampered with? INTERPOL does not answer this crucial question in its 102-page report.
Here in Washington the tendency is to take Colombia's word for it. However, this is a military that, according to the Washington Post, kills teen-agers in the countryside and dresses the corpses as guerrillas. Not to mention that 30 legislators aligned with President Uribe have been arrested and 32 more are under investigation for various crimes, including links to paramilitary death squads.
INTERPOL should be a more reliable source for the limited task it was given. But the statements of its chief, Ronald K. Noble - a former U.S. Treasury official -- have raised questions about its impartiality in this investigation. On May 15 Mr. Noble told the press, We are absolutely certain that the computer exhibits that our experts examined came from a FARC terrorist camp. … No one can ever question whether or not the Colombian government tampered with the seized FARC computers.
The first sentence is especially inappropriate, since INTERPOL did not investigate, nor did its report provide any information, on the origin of the computer exhibits. The second sentence seems exaggerated, since even INTERPOL's own report acknowledges that the Colombian authorities did not follow established procedures for handling electronic evidence for the first couple of days.
Of course, even if the files that have been selectively released by the Colombian government were authentic - and we really have no idea how many of them might be - they still provide only the FARC guerrillas' account of events. As Jose Miguel Insulza, the head of the Organization of American States, told the U.S. Congress on April 10: There is no evidence, and no member country, including this one (United States) has offered the OAS such proof that Venezuela supports terrorist groups.
The files themselves do not show that Venezuela actually provided any material aid to the FARC, although some describe alleged meetings with and promises from various Venezuelan officials.
On June 1, President Correa asked the OAS to investigate Colombia's allegations regarding Ecuador, and the OAS agreed. Most likely the OAS, which is no longer controlled by Washington, will find in favor of Ecuador. Colombia really doesn't have anything on either Ecuador or Venezuela that would hold up in a court or a legitimate legal proceeding.
The whole controversy is an illustration of the vast gulf between most of Latin America, which now has left-of-center governments, and the United States foreign policy establishment. For Latin America, Chávez is a friend and important ally who has promoted regional economic integration and growth - even helping to create new institutions for this purpose such as the Bank of the South and UNASUR. He has shared a good part of Venezuela's oil wealth with his neighbors, even helping some to deliver on their electoral promises, thereby contributing to democratization in the region. He has tried to promote a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Colombia. He has been democratically elected repeatedly, and to the region his government is as legitimate as any in the world. For Latin America's leaders, these considerations far outweigh any differences they may have with his rhetoric or confrontational style vis-à-vis the United States - which after all, did support a military attempt to overthrow his democratically elected government in 2002.
For Washington, Chávez is a dangerous demagogue, an authoritarian trouble-maker who threatens democracy (often confused with U.S. influence) and stability in the region. He must be isolated and his government de-legitimized, perhaps by linking him to terrorism or presenting him as a dictator. But it is Washington that faces growing isolation in the hemisphere.