In December 1996, the Peruvian Marxist guerrilla group Tupac Amaru (MRTA) occupied the Japanese embassy in Lima, taking hostage a group assembled to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Akihito. Four months later, Peru’s strongman president, the now-imprisoned Alberto Fujimori, ordered a team of elite Peruvian soldiers to retake the building. The handful of rebels who managed to survive the initial assault, witnesses later reported, were bound, dragged into a courtyard, and executed by members of the Peruvian army. Not a single member of the MRTA made it out alive.
A rather different tactic was employed by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose special forces freed 15 hostages held by the Marxist terror group FARC on Wednesday. The hostages included three American contractors and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. Dressed like a group of slightly menacing Berkeley baristas, the army infiltrators disguised themselves in Che Guevara t-shirts (seriously) and camouflaged uniforms, easily convincing the FARC that they too were fist-clenching, Lenin-reading members of the jungle politburo. It was an elaborate, cleverly plotted ruse—one that was guaranteed to fool a platoon of knuckle-dragging, forest-dwelling communist revolutionaries.
And it was a stunning—and, to Latin America watchers, unexpected—success. While it is tempting to indulge in the reflexive optimism that follows such a victory, the war against the FARC isn’t over yet. Nevertheless, it is also difficult to disagree with The Economist’s immediate post-raid assessment. The operation, said the magazine, was “a disaster for the FARC and its sympathizers in Latin America who hoped to use the hostage issue to weaken Mr Uribe.” In other words, it was a disaster for not only the FARC, but also for Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, all of whom have expressed some degree of sympathy or ideological affinity for the group.
While outwardly congratulatory, many in Latin America and Europe could muster only lukewarm praise for the Uribe government, which is viewed by many as ideologically suspect and too friendly with the Bush administration. As one blogger at The Economist noticed, more than a few European newspapers were more interested in criticizing Uribe’s policies than they were in discussing the rescue of Betancourt. The French paper Libération championed Betancourt’s cause, The Economist noted, but “could barely bring itself to congratulate Mr Uribe and the Colombians this morning,” choosing instead to upbraid the government’s “implacable” war against the guerrillas.
In the fever swamps of the far left, the reaction was predictably full of non sequiturs about Uribe’s dubious past associations and rumor-mongering about the fortuitous timing of the operation. The left-wing radio station Pacifica devoted a significant chunk of its coverage following the raid to questioning both the “timing” of the operation (more on this in a moment) and the institutional corruption of the Uribe administration—but nothing on the FARC’s unspeakably brutal crimes against the Colombian peasantry.
A Huffington Post writer dismissed as fake the evidence gleaned from laptops captured in the raid that killed FARC commander Raul Reyes in March. The material, which was verified by Interpol and suggested connections between FARC and officials in Venezuela and Ecuador, was most likely ginned up by the “death squad President Alvaro Uribe.” (The same author recently praised Evo Morales for “turn[ing] over the tortilla of our consciousness about Indians, race and power.”)
There is an understandable desire to bludgeon Uribe’s credibility by citing, for instance, his shady family and political connections. And there is quite a bit to unpack here. While it’s unfair to compare President Uribe to the buffoonish President Chavez, his critics are indeed justified in expressing skepticism of the timing of the raid, which they claim is designed to distract the public from a very Chavista-like scandal. Uribe’s second term election victory was secured after Congress lifted a ban on the serving of consecutive terms—a victory secured through good old-fashioned bribery, say his critics. The court recently ruled against the president on this very issue, forcing Uribe to issue a furious denial.
And his accusers are also correct to criticize the positively Bolivarian attempt to hold on to power for a third term, with party activists collecting signatures to force a referendum on the issue. While not directly involved in the campaign to extend his rule, Uribe has thus far refused to eliminate the possibility of yet another presidential mandate.
And then there is “Plan Colombia”—the wasteful, destructive, and counterproductive drug war operation inaugurated by former U.S. President Bill Clinton (and expanded by President George W. Bush) and former Colombian President Andres Pastrana. Drugs and the FARC are deeply intertwined, but it is optimistic to think that an end to the Colombian drug war would precipitate the end of the guerrilla war.
So yes, the Uribe government is far from perfect—it is Latin America after all, so we must judge on a steep curve—but as even the left-leaning Guardian acknowledged this week, Uribe is indeed a "skilled politician" who "has been able to bring a degree of order, security and prosperity to the country that was scarcely believed possible when he took office in 2002."
So what to do now? With FARC against the ropes and Uribe’s popularity at all time highs, former KGB “agent of influence” Richard Gott, author of a hagiographic biography of Hugo Chavez and a pro-Castro history of Cuba, advised that a “new Democratic government in the United States in January should put pressure on Uribe to engage in negotiation.” The New York Times said much the same: “President Álvaro Uribe should now capitalize on that disarray and offer the rebels, who long ago traded the business of political liberation for drug trafficking, a political settlement.”
During his press conference with the freed hostages, Uribe himself made a vague offer to FARC, one quickly endorsed by Betancourt: “This is an invitation to the FARC to make peace, to start releasing the hostages they still hold captive.” It is rather important to note that this was not the first in a new round of negations, but a stern demand for peace, offering no reciprocal action by the government.
So let’s bring this back around to where we started. Looking at the Peruvian example of fighting a war against left-wing guerrillas, we see a protracted, bloody war that the government ultimately won, crushing both the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru, two Maoist terror organizations who demanded nothing less than the restructuring of civilization according to the Chairman’s book of insane aphorisms. And there could, of course, be little political negotiations when there was almost nothing to negotiate. That was a situation understood by the rebels, and one that prompted them to enter into the business of kidnap and assassination.
There is an important distinction that must be made between the Fujimori tactics noted above—which routinely involved extrajudicial executions and the torture and disappearance of detainees—and those of Uribe, who claims to have insisted that the FARC hostage takers not be harmed during the raid. And while his critics rail against waging war against the FARC, it is only now, with the organization in full retreat, that the government can start making demands and "negotiate." This is, in other words, fast becoming the type of "negotiation" we saw aboard the battleship USS Missouri in 1945.
All of this is good news for Colombia, President Uribe, the families of the released, and the country’s economy (the Colombian peso surged the following day). But last word must go to Betancourt, who after years in captivity wisely warned both the Latin American left and her captors to let Colombia choose its own destiny: "I think (Chavez and Correa) are important allies in this process—but on the condition of respect for Colombian democracy. Colombians elected Alvaro Uribe. Colombians did not elect the FARC.”
And with President Uribe's approval rating hovering around 80 percent, don't expect Colombians to elect the FARC anytime soon.
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor at reason.