[After breaking the ice at the Santo Domingo regional summit in March,] Chávez had a surprise: the FARC, he said, had just informed him that it was prepared to release six more hostages. Uribe spoke in urgent whispers with his aides. Chávez asked President Fernández if protocol could be broken to allow the mother of Ingrid Betancourt to come into the hall. After some commotion, Betancourt’s mother, Yolanda Pulecio, an elegant woman in her late sixties (and a former Miss Colombia), entered. With her was Piedad Córdoba, a flamboyant left-wing Colombian senator who has worked with Chávez in negotiations with the FARC, and who was wearing a white turban. Uribe looked furious; Chávez was showing that he, not Uribe, was the one who could save the hostages’ lives.It's an anecdote that goes a long way towards explaining why - treacly cancillería communiqués notwithstanding - the rescue yesterday of Ingrid Betancourt and the 14 others is such a disaster for Chávez's continental strategy.
Chávez's stint as a hostage mediator was an obvious ploy to leverage their plight for increased regional relevance. From day one, it was easy to see the point wasn't so much to free hostages as it was to turn Chávez into a real player in Colombia, an indispensable go-between. The long-term goal was clear enough: to install an ideological ally in Casa de Nariño, whether through the gun or the ballot box, as a stepping stone to the creation of a regional socialist bloc to challenge the US's strategic dominance of the region.
Chávez has never been shy about his continental aspirations. The very label, "bolivarianismo", broadcasts that. Having a US-ally in power in Bogotá has long been the main obstacle to realizing the dream of re-editing Gran Colombia. And if, as Jon Lee Anderson explains, keeping that dream alive means parting ways with reality, well, that's too bad for reality:
Gustavo Petro is an outspoken leftist Colombian senator who is well known for his opposition to Uribe, but last year he publicly condemned the FARC for its drug trafficking and its human-rights abuses. He attributed Chávez’s position to naïveté. “The FARC has latched on to Chávez and his good will because it is in need of political varnish,” he told me. “It behaves like an occupation force, and has abandoned attempts to win over a base of support among the civilians. It actually kills more indigenous Colombians than any other armed group in the country today. Chávez doesn’t accept any of this. He is a romantic. If he sees people he thinks are ‘revolutionaries,’ Chávez salutes them and says, ‘At your service!’ ”So Chávez's plan, such as it was, depended on a way-out-there misreading of Colombian reality, one that resolutely refuses to accept that "Democratic Security" is now a national consensus over there, that Uribe's approval rating seldom dips below 80% (and would probably come in well above that if you took a poll this week), and that FARC-and-friends are reviled by virtually everybody.
In official circles in Caracas, I found a near-total disconnect with the mood in Colombia. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, Nicolás Maduro, dismissed the public’s support for Uribe as the product of “a media dictatorship, with the means of communication in the hands of the most rancid, racist, retrograde oligarchy on the continent.”
We need to keep things in perspective: Chávez's continental project was always more desvarío than strategy. Even in its less insane variant, the whole notion that he could somehow get Colombians to elect a FARC-coddling commie like Piedad Córdoba president was about as hare-brained, in the Colombian context, as it would be in our context if Uribe somehow got it into his head that he could position Alejandro Peña Esclusa to win the 2012 election.
So it wasn't much of a plan, but it was a plan - with the emphasis on the past tense here, because the real significace of yesterday's rescue (from a Venezuelan point of view, at least) is that it has now utterly collapsed. Operación Jaque left FARC looking against the ropes, Chávez looking irrelevant and Piedad Córdoba looking more likely to end up in jail than in Casa de Nariño.
For FARC, it may only have been check, but for Chávez's Espada de Bolívar shtick, it's check mate.