This month's spectacular rescue by Colombian commandos of 15 hostages, including the politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors, from a six-year captivity cast an international spotlight on the miseries inflicted by the terrorist group responsible for the kidnappings, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Much of the FARC's strength is derived from its protection of an illicit narcotics trade that channels cocaine to North American communities. But the recent hostage rescue has also drawn attention to the real role played by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez in using the FARC in an effort to destabilize the government of Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe, his regional archrival.
During a previous commando raid in March, which killed FARC second in command Raul Reyes at his Ecuador campsite, Colombian soldiers recovered files from Reyes's laptop showing, among other things, that high-ranking Venezuelans had schemed with the FARC to supply the group with high-tech weapons, ammunition, and a $300 million grant. The files also detailed plans to exploit the hostage issue for political gain.
Chávez's support for the FARC has been known and tolerated for some time. Indeed, Venezuela has been harboring the group's leaders, who have operated openly within Venezuela's borders. Chávez's ban on overflights by U.S. planes participating in antinarcotics operations in Colombia and his government's refusal to cooperate with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have also benefited the FARC immeasurably. It is no coincidence that during Chávez's presidency, Venezuela has turned into a major conduit for the transshipment of cocaine.
Despite the FARC's killing of thousands of civilians and its continued holding of 700 hostages, among them Venezuelans, the oil-rich Chávez government confessed its direct support for and solidarity with the region's most notorious terrorist group. During a speech this spring before Venezuela's congress and an assembled diplomatic corps, Chávez asked that the FARC be removed from U.S. and European terrorist lists, insisting that the group "deserves recognition" as "insurgent forces that have a political project, a Bolivarian project that is respected here."
It seems clear today that Chávez's earlier involvement in appearing to negotiate the release of FARC hostages was not a humanitarian act but rather cold political grandstanding intended to enhance his status and that of the FARC. It is suggestive of the amicability between Chávez and the FARC—and perhaps fitting punishment for their collusion—that when the Colombian commandos duped the FARC out of its most important assets, they chose as a disguise clothing and aircraft similar to those used by previous Venezuelan delegations.
Evidence of Chávez's support for the FARC has been revealed just as the Colombian military has made its biggest advances in its strategy of eliminating the group's leaders while encouraging defection among the rank and file. The rescue of Betancourt and the three American hostages deprives the group of its most valuable bargaining chips. What's more, the hostages' stories have helped cement world opinion against the FARC. Marc Gonsalves, one of the rescued Americans, described being held in chains while tropical diseases ravaged his body. His message to the FARC and its sympathizers, conveyed by media across the world: "FARC, you are terrorists...terrorists with a capital 'T.' "
Since the discovery of the Reyes laptop files and the rescue of the hostages, a shaken Chávez has been forced to adopt a more cooperative tone. This is all good, but Chávez's track record suggests that once the pressure is off, he will revert to his old ways. So it is important to keep the pressure on by confronting him with the consequences and implications of harboring and abetting narco-terrorist organizations.
Colombian intelligence agencies should publish the thousands of unreleased files from Reyes's laptop, which are widely believed to contain further details on Chávez's dealings with the FARC and other terrorist groups. Further, any Venezuelan officials implicated in supporting the FARC or other terrorist groups should have their assets frozen and travel restricted, as recently happened to a Venezuelan diplomat accused of raising funds for Hezbollah and establishing a Hezbollah center in Caracas. The United States should also strengthen Uribe's hand in fighting the FARC by reducing existing trade barriers with Colombia, which will send a message across the world that the United States stands with its allies in the fight against terrorism.
Diego Arria is a former Caracas governor and Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations. Richard Brand is an attorney and a former foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald.