COLOMBIAN CAPTIVES FREED; CHAVEZ EXPOSED By Jorge G. Castañeda Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez unwittingly revealed the truth about his secret relationship with Colombia’s FARC guerrillas in early January, a development that can be seen as one of the most important in recent times in Latin America. To achieve his sought-after objective of obtaining the release of two hostages held by FARC guerrillas in Colombia, Chavez had to go the extra mile to mitigate the humiliation he experienced in December when, despite a massive media and diplomatic effort, he was unable to secure their liberation (along with that of one hostage’s child, who turned out to be in a Bogotá orphanage). The Venezuelan government must have handed out a substantial sum of money to the various FARC factions involved in the hostage release, but obviously it was not enough. In order to reach his ultimate goal of also securing the freedom of Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped six years ago, Chavez was forced to agree to a political demand of the FARC that may well have cost him his credibility. The day after the released hostages were flown to Caracas, Chavez, in the equivalent of his State of the Union message, called on Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the European Union, and his Latin American colleagues, to stop considering the FARC as a terrorist organization and recognize them as legitimate insurgents with a "Bolivarian political platform that we respect." He thus confirmed, in spades, what many had been saying for years. In Washington, at least since the Bush Administration came into office in 2001, and in Bogota under Uribe’s predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, and in many Latin American capitals as well, it had been a foregone conclusion that Chavez and the FARC were an item: The Venezuelan afforded them safe haven against Colombian army attacks, rest and recreation, and cross-border access to his country. More recently, according to an in-depth investigative report by British journalist John Carlin published in Spain’s daily newspaper El País, Chavez also provided a conduit for their drug trafficking en route to Mexico, the United States and, increasingly, to Europe, with the condition that the Colombian narco-guerrillas not abuse their host’s hospitality or excessively manifest their presence. The problem was that every time any government asked Washington or Bogota for proof of these charges, the evidence was not forthcoming, either because of nonexistence or mistrust by both parties. But there is no further need to corroborate the accusations: Chavez himself has confirmed them. Not only has he imposed conditions for any rapprochement with his neighbor by requiring Uribe to renew negotiations with the FARC, but also has called fruitlessly upon other Latin American nations to reconsider their view of the guerrillas who for years have routinely been launching attacks on military and civilians, kidnapping and killing captives. Chavez has even explicitly committed the FARC to cease kidnappings and adhere to Geneva Convention codes regarding domestic strife, if they receive such "recognition." The Venezuelan president is now completely in bed with the FARC, for better or for worse. But, despite Chavez’s resorting to terminology forged in Havana nearly 30 years ago (the Cubans began asking friends to help the Salvadoran FMLN become a "belligerent force" in 1980), the FARC are no simple "freedom fighters." As someone who participated directly and actively in the French-Mexican engineered recognition of the FMLN in 1981 as a "representative political force," I can attest to the very different nature of the Colombian FARC from that of their presumed peers elsewhere in the region. Three differences stand out. First, El Salvador then (together with Nicaragua a few years before, and Guatemala at the same time), were in the hands of cruel military dictatorships, condemned worldwide for human rights violations and egregious electoral fraud. Colombia today, like other Latin nations, is an imperfect but functioning democracy, where everyone can struggle for their ideas peacefully, as previously disarmed guerrilla groups like the M-19 have shown. Second, despite many relapses, the FMLN (as well as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua until 1979, and the UNRG in Guatemala), agreed with their foreign friends to refrain from most of the human rights violations and other illicit means of warfare used by the FARC today: child soldiers, kidnappings, executions and, importantly, protecting or participating in the drug trade. And perhaps most significantly, the Central Americans knew, or thought they knew, what they were fighting for. So lastly and conversely, FARC’s fight has become a way of life, devoid of ideology, a platform, a program, or anything at all. What Chavez bombastically calls a "Bolivarian project" is nothing but a collection of bromides from the 1960s. Uribe has, of course, rejected Venezuela’s exhortation. This came particularly in response to the videotape of Chavez’s chief negotiator bidding the FARC kidnappers farewell with a "Good-luck,-we’re-with-you-handshake" which unabashedly revealed the caudillo’s sympathy for the guerrillas. And Uribe has emerged weakened, but fundamentally unscathed by the entire hostage brouhaha. However, it is possible that the Colombian president underestimated the unity and single-minded purpose of the "de facto" coalition stacked up against him. It is not a monolithic coalition: No longer is everyone in Cuba looking to export revolution across the hemisphere; not every member of Chavez’s’ political and military entourage is enthusiastic about his foreign adventures; and not every member of Colombia’s surging left-wing political party Polo Democratico is as enamored of the FARC as hostage intermediary and flamboyant Liberal Party senator, Piedad Córdoba. But a coalition it is. Reports are that the hostage release was at least partly negotiated in Havana by the recently freed FARC "foreign minister," Rodrigo Granda; that Chavez still runs a tight ship in Caracas; and that a good part of Polo Democratico refuses to break cleanly with the FARC and denounce their strategy and tactics. Uribe’s hesitation and on occasion clumsiness united this coalition and strengthened it, but if he regains his deft political touch, it is highly unlikely Chavez’s attempt to "legitimize" the FARC will work. And everyone now knows that Chavez has come out of the closet, which can only help Uribe and democrats throughout Latin America who wanted to expose him, but were unable to do so.