June 9, 2008
Quadruple U-Turn. With two backflips. And a watermelon on top.
Quico says: It's a measure of the lunacy that saturates Venezuelan public life that a totally vanilla headline like "Leader urges hostages' unconditional release" is seen as man-bites-dog stuff: "a surprising turnaround" that generates a ton of coverage and calls for heaps of commentary. But that's exactly where we find ourselves now that Hugo Chávez has dropped his softly-softly approach to FARC and called for the guerrillas to release all their "prisoners" in exchange for nothing and then disband.
[Brief tangent on (some highly charged) terminology. While most sane commentators have always described the people FARC holds as "hostages" ("secuestrados"), the Venezuelan government and FARC have gone far out of their way always to refer to them as "retained" ("retenidos") - just one of many symbolically important ways Chávez has been careful to align himself rhetorically with FARC. Yesterday, though, he described them as "prisoners" ("prisioneros") - staking out a kind of lexical middle-ground that, nonetheless, serves very visibly to distance his government from FARC rhetoric.]
What's it all mean? As usual, it's ambiguous, but I see three possibilities.
1-Chávez is cutting his losses. Realizing FARC is a-losing the war, b-a P.R. albatross around his neck and c-not listening to him anyway, Chávez decided to throw them under the proverbial bus, severing rhetorical ties and delinking himself from whatever abuses may follow.
2-This whole thing was agreed with new FARC leader Alfonso Cano ahead of time. It's just possible that FARC has just about had it with getting its ass kicked by the Colombian government and had been planning a move like this anyway, once Marulanda was out of the way. Having Chávez publicly call on them to release all hostages and demobilize could save face on both sides: FARC could argue that, without Venezuelan patronage, the "struggle" is not sustainable while Chávez could then take credit for demobilizing them.
3-The whole thing is a massive exercise in Goebbelsian doublespeak, and Venezuela's new policy will be to clandestinely arm, fund and aid FARC while Chávez publicly condemns them. The capture, just a few days ago, of a Venezuelan National Guard officer on a gun-running mission to Colombia suggests Chávez has decided to have his cake and eat it too.
If we see mass hostage releases in the coming weeks, we'll know it was 2-. If we don't, we can assume it was 1-. And if we notice Chávez bitching louder and louder while FARC gets stronger and stronger, it was probably 3-.