For months, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
were the darlings of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He
urged the public to consider the FARC noble freedom-fighters rather
than a pack of narco-terrorists. He praised them as a Bolivarian
Army on a sacred mission to drive the United States out of
Colombia. Chávez even entered into secret talks with the
FARC, promising the organization arms and money.
When the FARC's second-in-command, Raul Reyes, died in a
Colombian military strike in Ecuador, Chávez eulogized him
as a "good revolutionary" and ordered ten battalions of troops to
the border with Colombia. Soon, storm clouds of war hovered over
Caracas and the Andean region.
Suddenly, on June 8, 2008, these clouds appeared to part. During
his weekly television show, Hello Mr. President,
Venezuela's maverick leader urged the FARC's new commander, Alfonso
Cano, to free hundreds of hostages held by the guerrillas. Making a
180 degree shift in policy, Chávez also encouraged the FARC
to enter into peace talks with the government. "At this moment in
Latin America," he declared, "an armed guerrilla movement is out of
An exploration of the factors behind Chávez's rhetorical
shift reveals that now is not only the time to seek release of the
hostages held by the FARC, but also an opportunity to bring lasting
peace to Columbia.
The Chávez Shift
Qué pasa? Why the sudden change? For all his
bluster, President Chávez knows the computer files that
belonged to Reyes held a cache of evidence documenting his
government's material support of the FARC. For instance, by late
2007 and early 2008, Chávez was enmeshed in efforts to free
FARC hostages. Under the pretense of creating a humanitarian
accord, he secretly offered the FARC guns, money, and his public
The death of both Reyes and the FARC's historic leader Manuel
Marulanda, along with the recovery of the FARC computers, seems to
have dashed the possibility of any such offer, weakening ties
between the Venezuelan leader and the FARC. In light of the FARC's
recent setbacks, including the deaths of Marulanda and Reyes,
Chávez may no longer view backing the FARC as a prudent
political strategy. Indeed, short of providing massive arms
assistance, Venezuela might not be able to aid the guerrillas
effectively against a Colombian government that feels that its
tough strategy is weakening the FARC.
It must also be noted that Chávez's effort to distance
himself from the FARC came days after the Colombians arrested four
men, including two Venezuelans, one of whom identified himself as a
sergeant in Venezuela's national guard, transporting 40,000 rounds
of AK-47 ammunition to the FARC. Such incidents have made
Chávez's continued support of the FARC politically
Since Interpol authenticated the FARC files in May,
Chávez has taken a serious pounding in the international
press. He may also be a recipient of behind-the-scenes pressure
from more responsible nations like Brazil and Chile, whose leaders
know that it will be hard for Latin America to progress and prosper
as long as the region's most visible president extols the armed
path to power and bankrolls an army of narco-terrorists.
Trouble at Home
Chávez must also focus attention on his eroding domestic
image, which has been negatively affected by a host of problems
including food shortages, rising inflation, and soaring crime
rates. Venezuelans are also reacting to a loss of individual
liberties. Chávez's promulgation of a new intelligence
services law was widely criticized as a giant step toward
implementing Cuban-style totalitarian domestic spying. In response
to public outrage, Chávez promised to withdraw the
controversial measure on June 7.
Of immediate concern for Chávez are state and municipal
elections scheduled for the coming November. Additionally,
Chávez is likely to make another attempt at passing a
constitutional referendum allowing additional presidential terms.
If Chávez cannot engineer such a referendum, he will have to
relinquish power in 2013. Given the challenges he is facing
domestically, Chávez may have decided that supporting the
FARC and meddling in Colombia's internal affairs is becoming a
political liability at home. He may also be facing hidden pressure
from key players inside Venezuela, including the military, to
severe ties to the FARC.
Pressure from the North
Despite his bravado, Chávez's change of heart may also
stem from his fear of being declared a state sponsor of terrorism
by the U.S. As he commented in the June 8 speech, "You [the FARC]
have become an excuse for the empire to threaten us all." Clearly,
Chávez is not willing to be labeled a sponsor of FARC
terrorism if the cost is his own political skin.
Is Chávez genuinely convinced that the day of the
guerrilla is over? Will he turn words into concrete actions? The
rule remains: Watch what Chávez does, not what he says.
Chávez's ability to get the FARC to renounce terrorism, even
temporarily, is also uncertain.
An Opportunity for Peace
Regardless of Chávez's motivations, the Latin American
political climate appears propitious for a new initiative aimed at
ending the conflict in Colombia. Ecuador and Colombia are meeting
and appear ready to repair relations and develop a strategy aimed
at controlling their ungoverned border. Ecuador has also called for
the Organization of American States (OAS) to evaluate the evidence
found in the FARC computers.
A new bonding of Latin American nations, the Union of South
American Nations (UNSAUR), offers a potential foundation for a new
era of peace. Latin America, plagued by crime and drug violence,
may have grown weary of the FARC's hostage-taking, terrorism, and
drug racketeering. If every Latin American voice is raised, the
message stands a better chance of being heard in the FARC's remote
Finally, it is time for the U.S. Congress to signal support for
the Uribe government by passing the stalled free trade agreement.
This will give the Colombians an extra fillip of confidence and
legitimacy as they try to draw the FARC toward demobilization and
On June 8, the clouds of confrontation may have lifted for a
moment in the Andes. It is time to seize the opportunity provided
by this reprieve and seek freedom for the FARC hostages and a
concerted end to Colombia's bloody conflict.
Ray Walser, Ph.D.,
is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.