The fate of the almost 800 Colombian citizens held by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia / Farc) in areas of the country which the paramilitary group controls is a particularly intractable aspect of an enduring internal conflict. The release on 10 January 2008 of two of the hostages (Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez) - after a fractious mediation process in which Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, played a controversial role - is welcome, but also a dramatic reminder to their fellow Colombians of the persistent suffering of hundreds more captives reduced to mere survival without life or hope.
If this pattern of release is repeated in each case - involving a very small number of hostages being freed unilaterally by the Farc, and only after a tortuous negotiation - it will be many years before all the hostages are returned to their families and lives. The photograph of Ingrid Betancourt, the former presidential candidate now held for six years by the Farc, is enough to indicate the terrible strain of such an experience. It is time for the Colombian government to adopt an innovative strategy for liberating these citizens. What might it look like?
Myles Frechette is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS), Washington. He was the United States ambassador to Colombia from 1994-97. This article was first published in Spanish in the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo on 20 January 2008
A human-centred process
The heart of the strategy would be the idea of a humanitarian exchange involving the release of all persons held by the Farc. This would be the result of mediation by a non-Colombian respected by both sides and a member neither of a government or of an international organisation. This negotiator could be a distinguished European, Latin American, or United States citizen; he or she would have to be trusted by the Bogotá government and the guerrillas alike in order to be able to achieve a mutually acceptable solution. Hugo Chávez's partisanship in openly promoting the Farc and denouncing Colombia's government render him unsuitable to be this figure. However, not all candidates for this role are ingenuous or believe that the Farc are idealistic patriots.
A humanitarian exchange is not a peace negotiation between the Farc and the Colombian government. Peace negotiations will not happen until both sides conclude they cannot "win" militarily. Make no mistake; that will take years. Further, the differences between both sides are not only political. The Farc is a criminal enterprise financed by drug-trafficking that flourishes on strong demand in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Many sacrifices lie ahead for the Colombian people before there is peace. A humanitarian exchange, however, might be possible much sooner.
Also in openDemocracy on Colombia's politics and internal violence:
Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit"(25 October 2005)
Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)
Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's elections: the regional exception" (10 March 2006)Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's testing times" (29 March 2006)
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (29 May 2006)
Adam Isacson, "The United States and Colombia: the next plan" (12 March 2007)
Jenny Pearce, "The crisis of Colombia's state" (14 May 2007)
Ana Carrigan, "Pawns of war: the Colombian hostage crisis" (15 November 2007)
The Farc pays little attention to international pressure. The Colombian government, however, is under great pressure, internally and externally, to negotiate for the hostages. Colombians may feel this is unfair. Yet international opinion always expects more from democracies than it does from terrorists or criminals. International opinion would also condemn Colombian military action that prompts the Farc to kill the hostages.
A request for help from a non-Colombian to solve Colombian problems implies not only some erosion of sovereignty but also that the solution proposed will probably be unpalatable to some Colombians. But are there alternatives?
In the 1990s, polls showed that Colombian citizens had little confidence that crime in all its forms (including corruption, kidnapping, mass killings, and highway robbery) would end. But as a result of international assistance - beginning with Plan Colombia under former (1998-2002) president Andrés Pastrana and continuing with President Álvaro Uribe's policy of "democratic security" - Colombians now dare to believe that some of their nation's problems are resolvable.
No guarantee, but no alternative
The positive reaction to the latest releases by the Farc demonstrates that Colombians want their loved ones liberated no matter who facilitates their freedom. But as their expectations have risen, they also now sense that a prisoner exchange negotiated between the Farc and the Colombian government is unlikely. The gulf between the Farc and the Colombian government - a mixture of rancour, ideological differences and distrust - is simply insuperable. Unilateral releases can take place but are likely to be small and sporadic. Worse, they leave the fate of hundreds of human beings subject only to Farc initiatives. This guarantees that the hostages and their families will continue to suffer - deprived of their families, their place in society and exposed to disease.
Many believe that the Farc's willingness to negotiate a humanitarian exchange with the Colombian government is simply a manoeuvre to improve the group's international image or to fool the government into long and fruitless negotiations (such as those with ex-president Pastrana). But the Colombian armed forces have pressured the Farc and restricted its freedom of movement and communication. Could it be that, because of these restrictions, the Farc finds that taking care of several hundred prisoners is more of a problem than an advantage? Could it be that the movement, now supported by drug-trafficking, no longer needs the ransom paid by families of the hostages? If so, the Farc might agree to a negotiated exchange. Colombians won't know until their government makes a serious attempt to use a foreign negotiator. There are no guarantees, but neither are there viable alternatives.