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France, Colombia and the Hostage Rescue: An Interview with Daniel Pécaut

Friday, July 11, 2008

Since her spectacular liberation last week along with 14 other hostages, the former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt has been received in France as a "heroine" (as the cover of one French weekly put it). Over the last year, the French government and President Nicolas Sarkozy have publicized their efforts to obtain the release of Betancourt, who also has French citizenship and whose two children live in France. But how much did the French efforts ultimately contribute to the liberation of Betancourt and the other hostages? And what, more generally, have been the effects of French diplomacy upon the conflict opposing the Colombian government and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. John Rosenthal spoke with Daniel Pécaut, one of France's leading authorities on Colombian politics.

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John Rosenthal: Following the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages in Colombia, a polemic has developed in France: provoked, notably, by some remarks made by former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal. Royal warned against what she called the "political exploitation" of the event and said the French government and President Nicolas Sarkozy had, in any case, "played no role whatsoever" in obtaining the hostages' freedom. Do you think that's correct? How would you evaluate the French role, if any?

Daniel Pécaut: Well, concretely speaking, the liberation of the hostages was accomplished by the Colombian army and in conditions that are more or less known. The fact that the liberation took place shows how fragile the FARC have become. There are numerous signs of disintegration: disobeying orders, guerrilleros who are tempted to desert by the rewards offered by the government, and so on. The French contribution amounted essentially to the following. During the last year, France managed to assure that the question of the hostages remained in the public eye and it exerted considerable pressure on the government of Alvaro Uribe to act only in such a manner as would not put the lives of the hostages -- and, notably, the life of Ingrid Betancourt -- in danger. As such, French diplomacy was entirely focused on the question of a "humanitarian exchange" [of hostages for imprisoned FARC members] and in fact this idea of a "humanitarian exchange" was more of a nuisance to the Uribe government than a help.

JR: Via Betancourt, France became, in effect, an actor in the Colombian hostage crisis and, as you indicate, France gave priority to a very particular solution: the "humanitarian exchange." How was this perceived in Colombia: not only by the Uribe government, but also by ordinary Colombians?

DP: For a long time, there was a certain exasperation. Many Colombians had the impression that France was concerned only with the case of Ingrid Betancourt and neglected the fact that there were numerous other hostages. For a long time, the question of the liberation of the hostages -- and, in particular, that of Ingrid Betancourt -- was not regarded as a priority by a large section of Colombian public opinion. Things began to change in the middle of 2007. At that point, currents opposed to Uribe realized that the question of a "humanitarian exchange" could be used to hurt the Uribe government. It was only then that the question became important in Colombia itself. And then later, when video footage was released showing the inhuman conditions in which the hostages were being held, the subject gained further notoriety.

JR: How would you evaluate more generally the role of French diplomacy: that is, not only as concerns these particular hostages that have been released, but as concerns the conflict as such between the Colombian government and the FARC? Do you think that French diplomatic activity has helped to move toward a resolution of the conflict or perhaps made matters worse?

DP: I don't think that France has contributed much to finding a political solution. After all, the French government and Nicolas Sarkozy played the Chávez card. Officially, France made two demands: firstly, that the hostages should not be liberated through the use of force. In this respect, the French government adopted a demand made by Ingrid Betancourt's family. And, secondly, France gave priority to negotiations supposed to lead to a "humanitarian exchange" and, in so doing, it came fully to embrace the role of Hugo Chávez as mediator. But this French position became increasingly untenable: notably, when, following the death of [FARC Secretariat member] Raúl Reyes, Chávez threatened to dispatch his tanks to the Colombian border; and then when Chávez called for a minute of silence following the death of FARC chief Manuel Marulanda; and, above all, after the analysis of Reyes's computer showed that Chávez had been displaying a certain "revolutionary solidarity" with the FARC.

Next Page: The Colombian government seeks full control . . .


JR: Yesterday, the newspaper Le Monde published an article citing members of Colombian NGOs and suggesting that the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt could make things more difficult for the hostages that the FARC continues to hold. The reasoning seems to be that because Ingrid Betancourt was, as you have put it previously, the "keystone" of the FARC's strategy vis-à-vis the Colombian government, the government will now be less inclined to accept a negotiated solution. Do you share this analysis?

DP: Absolutely. Moreover, I interpret the accusations against the Swiss envoy Jean-Pierre Gontard [who has been accused by the Colombian government of delivering money to the FARC] as a kind of warning to Switzerland and France to stop trying to intervene in setting the conditions of the negotiations with the FARC -- because, as far as I know, the actions of Gontard were almost always authorized by the Colombian government and undertaken in consultation with the Colombian government.

JR: Does that mean that you think there were previously good chances of finding a solution and that such chances have disappeared?

DP: I think that the Colombian government wants to be fully in control of any eventual negotiations. As you've mentioned, Ingrid was the keystone of the FARC's strategy: She was the person that gave them access to an international audience, that allowed Chávez to continue to play a role, and that made Sarkozy a player in the affair. I think now the Colombian government, having taken note of the extreme disorganization of the FARC, intends to be exclusively in control of setting the conditions of any possible negotiations.

JR: In the meanwhile, a second polemic has developed concerning the conditions of the liberation of the hostages: this one provoked by a report of the Swiss radio station Radio Suisse Romande (RSR). According to RSR, citing an anonymous source, the Colombian government, or perhaps the American government, is supposed to have made a payment of ransom to obtain the release of the hostages -- and, indeed, a substantial payment. RSR mentions a figure of some $20 million. How credible do you find this scenario?

DP: I think this polemic does not have much importance. For the moment, there is no reason to doubt the reality of the military operation or that it unfolded as we have been told. But in any case, it has been the official policy of the Colombian government for several months now to offer financial rewards to all members of the FARC who are prepared to desert and to offer even more substantial rewards to guerrilleros or officers of the FARC who would be prepared to desert and take hostages with them. I don't think the secretariat of the FARC has been infiltrated. But I think that an enormous number of guerrilleros have been "turned" and are providing the government information and that numerous of the subordinate officers of the frontline commanders are prepared to desert in exchange for the rewards and in order to obtain more favorable treatment by the judiciary after their desertion.

JR: But the RSR report and the news agencies that further disseminated the RSR report, such as the AFP, spoke of a payment of "ransom." But what you've described is not ransom. It's more, as you've put it, a matter of financial "rewards" for guerrilleros who are cooperating with the government.

DP: Yes, I think it's much more likely that there were rewards involved rather than ransom. In fact there have been ransom payments for hostages in Colombia. It happens all the time. For instance, the accusations against Gontard concern precisely a ransom payment [to obtain the liberation of two employees of a Swiss firm]. It is well known that governments sometimes pay ransom to obtain the freedom of their citizens who are held hostage. According to thus far unconfirmed rumors, Chávez himself paid a ransom to obtain the liberation of the first "political" hostages of the FARC that were released in January. But as concerns the release of Ingrid, and the three Americans, and the other hostages now, I think it was much more likely to have been a matter of rewards paid to guerrilleros who were prepared to desert and that facilitated the military operation.

Daniel Pécaut is a professor at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and the author of numerous works in Spanish and French on Colombian politics. His most recent book is a study of the FARC, "Les Farc, une guérilla sans fins?".