On June 8, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stated on his weekly radio program that the Marxist guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), should release its hostages and abandon its quest to overthrow Colombia’s democratic government. “Guerrilla wars have become history in Latin America,” Mr. Chavez said. This is a dramatic reversal of policy for the Venezuelan strongman who has been insisting that FARC is a legitimate insurgency rather than a terrorist organization. Mr. Chavez is at last taking a more sensible position - but it remains to be seen whether he will follow his words with deeds.
Mr. Chavez has long been suspected of providing financial and military assistance to the rebels. Recently, the Colombian army killed a prominent rebel leader, Raul Reyes, and seized his laptop. Interpol is examining 37,000 files in the computer and has confirmed that there are close ties between FARC and the Chavez government. The computer files indicate that Mr. Chavez promised to give FARC $300 million, a portion of Venezuela’s oil earnings and access to ports for arms shipments from Russia.
There are calls among American legislators to place Venezuela on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism - alongside Iran, Sudan, Syria, Cuba and North Korea. Designating Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism could give the Bush administration grounds to impose sanctions. However, the U.S. is Venezuela’s largest oil customer; any attempts to impose sanctions on Venezuela could become harmful to the American economy, too. The State Department is rightly insisting that Mr. Chavez sever all financial ties with FARC, shut down Venezuela’s FARC training camps and extradite FARC leaders under his protection. America must also continue to stand in solidarity with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who is gradually routing the guerrillas and stabilizing the nation. FARC is a much reduced force: Three of its top seven leaders have been killed in the last three months; and the organization currently consists of 9,000 guerrillas living in the Colombian jungle.
The international pressure on FARC is also mounting. The rebels are holding 700 hostages from several nations in appalling conditions. Three of these hostages - Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves - are American contractors who were working for the State Department when they were captured in 2003.
Mr. Chavez’s new position is seemingly welcome. But there should be no U.S. applause until Mr. Chavez’s actions mimic his rhetoric.