Chavez's Image Takes a Knock After Hostage Release Delayed

By Leandro Prada | July 7, 2008 | 8:18pm EDT

Buenos Aires ( - Following drawn-out negotiations with the Colombia's armed rebel group FARC, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' effort to secure the release of three hostages appears to have failed.

The negotiations with the Colombian group, whose full name is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), came after a public quarrel between Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, derided by the Venezuelan leader last November as a "sad pawn of the empire" -- a reference to the United States.

The U.S. has committed $308 million in 2008 military aid for the anti-narcotics campaign known as Plan Colombia, along with $246 million in humanitarian aid.

Chavez had hoped FARC would release three hostages at the weekend. They are Clara Rojas, a former vice president candidate in Colombia; her four-year-old son, Emmanuel, who was born in captivity; and former lawmaker Consuelo Gonzalez.

Another hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, is a Colombian politician who was campaigning for the presidency in 2002 when she was kidnapped, along with Rojas, her running mate. Gonzalez was seized in 2001. Betancourt has French citizenship, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy is also trying to get her and others freed.

The handover -- which Chavez dubbed "Operation Emmanuel -- was to have taken place in the Colombian rainforest, where the FARC and other armed groups operate, getting most of their income from cultivating coca plantations and taking hostages.

A reception committee included various Latin American representatives, including former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner, as well as Hollywood movie director Oliver Stone.

Colombia allowed Venezuela to send helicopters into its territory to fetch the hostages, but the release never took place.

Venezuelan official information agency ABN said the Colombian government accused FARC of breaching the terms of the agreement to free the hostages, claiming bad weather conditions.

But Chavez blamed the delays on "reports of intense military operations in the delivery zone," accusing the U.S., which has some 800 troops in Colombia, of engaging FARC in combat.

In a speech Tuesday, addressing the Colombian president, Chavez said, "Uribe my brother, reflect. Get unhooked from the United States, which does not want peace."

He also urged Uribe and FARC leader Manuel Marulanda Velez to seek peace.

Venezuelan political analyst Agustin Blanco Munoz said in an Argentine radio interview Tuesday that Chavez was trying to make up for his recent defeatin a referendum on amending his country's constitution.

Chavez "needed an action that would project him on the international scene," said Munoz. He called Operation Emmanuel "a poorly staged show" that "unveiled the true intentions of Chavez, who is nothing more than a media clown."

Adam Isaacson, director of programs at the liberal Washington-based Center for International Policy, told Cybercast News Service that even though the operation's failure was a "black eye for Hugo Chavez," the damage is not severe, since there is so much uncertainty about why it did not succeed.

"Nonetheless, the failure gives more fodder to Chavez' opponents in the region, who will say that Chavez greatly overestimated his clout as a peacemaker and acted as a 'useful idiot' of the FARC," he added.

Regarding Stone's presence in the jungle, Isaacson said that did not likely have any impact on the outcome.

"In fact, one would have expected that the FARC would have risked more to get the hostages freed, in order to avoid forcing a U.S. Oscar winner, not to mention Argentina's ex-president, to spend several days [there], only to leave empty-handed."

According to Amnesty International, 687 kidnappings took place in Colombia in 2006. FARC and other guerrilla groups were responsible for 200 kidnappings, and most of the others were carried out by common criminals, it said.

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