Venezuela cheers Chavez call for FARC to make peace

By John Otis/South America Bureau

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Officials expressed surprise and delight Monday after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called on Colombia’s largest guerrilla group to call off its 44-year war to overthrow the government.

“If this new attitude produces results, it is magnificent news,” Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said.

In a startling about-face, Chavez urged the guerrillas of the FARC, the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, to put down their weapons and make peace. He called on the rebels to free hundreds of hostages without asking for anything in return.

“The guerrilla war is history,” Chavez said Sunday during his weekly television show. “At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place.”

Although Chavez’s declaration echoed similar statements made several years ago by his idol, Fidel Castro, the Venezuelan’s comments were especially startling because the socialist leader has been an unabashed admirer of the rebels.

In January, Chavez called on the international community to grant political recognition to the FARC, which has been branded as a terrorist organization by the United States, Europe and Colombia.

And though nothing has been proven, recent e-mails from computers confiscated at a guerrilla camp suggest that members of the Chavez government may have offered the rebels safe haven inside Venezuela, weapons and financial support.

Rather than an ideological change of heart, some analysts viewed Chavez’s comments as a move to improve rocky relations with neighboring Colombia, Venezuela’s most important trading partner, and to shore up support at home ahead of mayoral and gubernatorial elections in November. Polls show that many Venezuelan voters disagree with Chavez’s support of the FARC.

“Chavez really misread sentiment about how the FARC is perceived,” said John Walsh of the liberal-leaning Washington Office on Latin America.

Chavez, a sharp critic of the United States, lost a referendum last December that would have given him more power, and he faces growing domestic opposition because of food shortages.

“There had to be some sacrifices, and he’s apparently willing to throw the FARC to the lions,” said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. “He wants to show he’s a peacemaker and a member in good standing of the international community rather than a full-time bad boy.”

Chavez’s words come at a time of transition for the rebels. Manuel Marulanda, the guerrillas’ supreme leader since the group was founded in the early 1960s, died in March.

He was replaced by Alfonso Cano, a Bogota native in his 50s. But even though the rebels appear to be reeling amid a fierce offensive by government troops, it remains unclear whether the guerrillas will heed Chavez’s advice.