Colombian Hostages: Free This Time

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AFP / Getty

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (C) welcomes freed hostages Colombian politicians Clara Rojas (rear, right) and Consuelo Gonzalez de Perdomo (L) at the presidential palace in Caracas just a few hours after they were released by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in the Colombian jungle.

Colombia's powerful Marxist guerrillas, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, don't mind being called brutal. They don't mind being called deceitful. What they can't apparently stand, however, is being called stupid. As a result, two prominent Colombian politicians are now free after six years as FARC hostages.

International Red Cross helicopters, flying from neighboring Venezuela, picked up former Colombian Congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez and former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas around noon on Thursday, deep in the jungle some 150 miles (240 km) southeast of Colombia's capital, Bogota. They were whisked to a military base in Venezuela, and were expected to be reunited with family in Caracas soon after. Leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, acting as mediator between the FARC and the Colombian government, had surprised everyone hours earlier when he announced that Gonzalez and Rojas were to be freed — a week after hopes for their release seemed to have all but collapsed in a New Year's debacle that made one of the world's most powerful rebel armies look as foolish as it is fierce. The women "are completely free," an exultant Chavez said at the Miraflores presidential palace after talking with them by telephone Thursday. "I said to both of them, 'Welcome back to life.'"

Chavez could have said the same for the Colombian peace process he had begun to broker last year, at least for the effort to get more FARC hostages freed in exchange for the government's release of captured guerrillas. The FARC, which holds more than 700 civilian and military captives, had agreed last month to hand over three hostages: Gonzalez, Rojas and Rojas's three-year-old son, Emmanuel, who was fathered by a FARC captor. But, as a host of international dignitaries waited south of Bogota just before New Year's Eve, the release never happened — largely, it turned out, because clueless FARC leaders suddenly realized that they didn't have the little boy. Two years before, Emmanuel, gravely ill in a rebel camp, had been given to a foster family and was no longer in their hands.

As a result, the FARC — widely considered bloodthirsty and untrustworthy — added incompetence to its already black image. The guerrillas, who have taken to making millions protecting the cocaine trade, were further embarrassed by the fact that it was their sworn enemy, conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who publicly disclosed the bombshell intelligence about Emmanuel on New Year's Eve. FARC leaders blamed what they called Uribe's meddling for their cancellation of the hostage release; but that argument convinced few people. "The FARC was being so ridiculed at that point," says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington D.C. "They had to do something to get their credibility back." FARC's humiliation also reflected on Chavez, who has been using his leftist credentials to mediate both the hostage crisis and Uribe's war against the FARC.

Shifter said Thursday's release "improves Chavez's standing as a mediator after he looked so taken in last week." Still, the radical anti-U.S. Venezuelan leader, he adds, "needs many more victories like this" to jumpstart peace talks in Colombia, whose bloody, four-decade-old civil war has killed some 40,000 people, displaced millions more and dramatically deepened U.S. involvement in the drug war there.

Shifter agrees that Thursday's release "has taken some of the initiative away from Uribe." That leaves the question of what the Colombian President, who has yet to directly negotiate with the FARC, will be expected to do now in response, especially since the Colombian government and military have hardly been blameless themselves in the conflict. The FARC, a 20,000-member army that controls a massive swath of southern Colombia, will probably intensify its calls for the government to release rebel prisoners. But much of Uribe's high poll ratings among Colombians is based on his resolve to stand up to the FARC.

The Gonzalez-Rojas release is also a reminder that the FARC holds three U.S. defense contractors — who next month will mark five years in rebel captivity — as well as such prominent hostages as former Colombian Senator and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt (who was captured with Rojas). Colombia's Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, said he hoped the FARC "continue liberating hostages." But now that the guerrillas have at least partially salved their embarrassment, the rest of the world would be wise to keep its expectations of future releases as low as the FARC's image.