Crisis over a kidnapping

Published : Feb 25, 2005 00:00 IST

FARC leader Rodrigo Granda at the police headquarters in Bogota after he was taken into custody following his kidnapping. - LUIS ACOSTA/AFP

FARC leader Rodrigo Granda at the police headquarters in Bogota after he was taken into custody following his kidnapping. - LUIS ACOSTA/AFP

A month-long standoff between Colombia and Venezuela over the kidnapping of a Colombian rebel leader from Venezuelan territory seems to have been defused.

ON the afternoon of December 16, as people were busy doing their Christmas shopping in Caracas, the foreign policy spokesman of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Rodrigo Granda, was whisked away by unidentified men from a cafe in the Venezuelan capital. The whereabouts of Granda remained a mystery until the Colombian government announced his "capture" in the last week of December. The government in Bogota, led by America's best friend in the region, Alvaro Uribe, initially claimed that Granda, who had represented the FARC in its negotiations with the Colombian government, had been captured inside Colombia, in a town near the border with Venezuela.

The U.S. government has branded the FARC a "terrorist" organisation and had put Granda on its "wanted" list for being allegedly involved in "narco-trafficking". Knowing the Bush administration's disrespect for civil and human rights, Granda, who was designated as the "Foreign Minister" of the FARC, is likely to be incarcerated for the rest of his life in an American prison.

However, it did not take long for the murky facts of the case to emerge. The Venezuelan government, after having taken its own time to investigate the matter thoroughly, found out that the Colombian rebel leader was kidnapped by renegade Venezuelan Army officers who were bribed heavily by the Colombian government. The "bounty" on offer for Granda's capture was reported to be $1.5 million. It took some days for the Colombian government to admit that a ransom was handed out for the kidnapping of the FARC leader.

Granda used to move about freely like tens of thousands of other Colombians who have been residing in Venezuela. In fact, he had attended the World Conference of Intellectuals and Artistes held in Caracas in the first week of December. One of the topics that figured prominently in that conference was the threat posed by "Plan Colombia" to the regions.

Under the "Plan", Washington has given $2.5 billion to the Colombian government to beef up its military on the pretext of combating insurgency and narco-terrorism. The government of Venezuela and progressive movements in the region are of the opinion that the real goal of the plan is to destabilise the region and scupper the chances for regional integration. The kidnapping of Granda will only add to their misgivings.

Some of the intellectuals who had attended the conference wrote a letter of solidarity addressed to the Venezuelan people, after the kidnapping incident. "We demand that the government of Colombia cease playing the sad and servile role of bridgehead that the United States has reserved for it in this new strategy of aggression," the letter stated.

Unfortunately, some leading intellectuals were quick to jump the gun and imply that the Venezuelan government was not revealing all the facts surrounding the case. They were reacting after stories had appeared in the Colombian media that elements from the Venezuelan Army were involved in the kidnapping.

Investigations by the Venezuelan government revealed that Granda was illegally confined in a Venezuelan Army base and later on spirited out of the country into Colombia. The two countries share a 2,250-km-long porous border. Venezuela has around 20,000 troops patrolling the border. Colombia has far fewer troops doing so. Venezuela has been saying for a long time that it is very difficult to monitor the sparsely populated border areas without matching troop deployment from Colombia. The FARC and other rebel groups have been active in the area for the past 40 years, much before Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez came on to the political scene.

President Chavez reacted to the kidnapping only after he had all the facts of the case with him. In early January, the Venezuelan government indicated that an apology from Bogota for the violation of the country's sovereignty would be in order. But the Colombian government tried to justify its actions and virtually accused Caracas of abetting international terrorism. Chavez recalled his country's Ambassador to Colombia in the second week of January, saying that full diplomatic links would be restored only after Bogota issued an apology for its breach of international law and Venezuelan sovereignty.

Chavez stressed that if Colombia had formally requested the extradition of the FARC leader, events could have taken a different course. The Venezuelan President pointed out that on earlier occasions, his government had handed over prominent figures wanted for crimes committed in neighbouring countries. In fact, Colombian citizens have been repatriated from Venezuela at the insistence of Bogota. Venezuelan officials point out that Granda was not on the wanted list of either the Interpol or the Colombian government.

In a speech to the Venezuelan Parliament, Chavez said that he was obliged to suspend bilateral ties with Colombia. "It is unjustifiable from any point of view that high officials of the Colombian state are instigating Venezuelan officials to break the law," he said. Five members of Venezuela's Army, along with three police officers, have been arrested in connection with the kidnapping. Chavez said that if Colombia did not rectify matters, Venezuela would "freeze" relations with Colombia. He went on to describe the kidnapping of Granda as "a new U.S. imperialist trick".

AS neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Peru were trying to mediate, the Bush administration got into the act. It wasted no time in backing Colombia in the dispute. The American Ambassador to Colombia said that his country was "hundred per cent" behind Colombia on the issue. The Colombian President had stated that his country had the right "to liberate itself from terrorism" and that the offering of ransom money for nabbing so-called terrorists was a legitimate measure for governments to take. Vice-President Francisco Santos, adding fuel to the fire, called on the "bounty hunters of the world" to help his country capture "terrorists".

The incoming American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, openly showed her antipathy towards the Venezuelan President and his government during her confirmation hearings in mid-January. Rice had welcomed the short-lived military coup against Chavez in 2002. Strong evidence has since emerged about the active role of U.S. intelligence agencies in fomenting the coup. The U.S. government has admitted that it had advanced information about the brewing coup, but it did not bother to inform the democratically elected government in Venezuela about it. The Secretary-General of the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), Allan Wagner of Peru, in a statement in the last week of January, when the crisis between Venezuela and Colombia had assumed serious proportions, said that it was important that "the U.S. observe a policy of non-intervention" in the affairs of Latin American countries.

Venezuelans across the political divide have rallied in support of the position taken by Chavez. There have been massive rallies protesting against the Colombian government's action in Caracas and elsewhere. The Venezuelan government's decision to cut off economic relations temporarily was beginning to have an adverse impact on the Colombian economy. Venezuela is Colombia's second biggest trading partner, with an annual bilateral trade exceeding $2.5 billion. Venezuela imports a lot of goods from Colombia. Venezuela had planned the construction of a gas pipeline from its territory to Colombia's Pacific coast. The Venezuelan President emphasised that all economic projects would remain suspended until the controversy was resolved satisfactorily.

Chavez had firmly rejected the proposal of a summit meeting of Latin American leaders to resolve the issue. From the outset, he insisted on a "face-to-face" meeting with his Colombian counterpart. Chavez stressed that it was exclusively a bilateral issue, not the topic for a summit meeting for Latin American leaders. "The central issue is that a crime has been committed here," he said. He added that even if issues of terrorism were involved, there was no justification for the violation of the sovereignty of neighbouring nations.

The Colombian President, after prevaricating for nearly a month, agreed to a bilateral meeting with Chavez. A communique issued by the Colombian President's Office on January 27 said that Colombia was willing to review the Granda case to determine whether the action has caused any "inconveniences" to Venezuela. The communique, which was drafted with the help of the Peruvian Foreign Minister, said that Uribe would be visiting Caracas in the first week of February for the "face-to-face" meeting demanded by his Venezuelan counterpart.

The Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Ali Rodriguez, has welcomed the gesture from Bogota. Venezuela, for its part, has pledged to take immediate measures to defuse the tension between the two countries. The Venezuelan Army chief, General Raul Baduei, reiterated his country's determination not to allow, "incursions into its territory by any illegal armed group, whether it be leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries or common criminals". Venezuela recently purchased Russian helicopter gun ships to patrol the long borders with Colombia in its continuing efforts to prevent the civil war in Colombia from spilling over to its territory.

The crisis between the two countries, which had threatened to escalate, seems to have been defused, at least for the time being. But Washington may have many other plans up its sleeve to destabilise Venezuela.

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