Thursday, February 7, 2008

The State Department and every European government designated the FARC, a rebel army in Colombia, a foreign terrorist organization. Yet last month Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez praised the FARC as a “real army… an insurgent force with a political project.” Mr. Chavez was cheered repeatedly by the Venezuelan congress when he insisted that the FARC must be “acknowledged” and called upon foreign governments to cease referring to the FARC as terrorists.

The FARC terrorist group has been fighting the democratic government of Colombia for more than 40 years. Founded as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party, this 16,000-strong terrorist force recruits children and funds its activities with billions of dollars from the cocaine trade. Its explicit objective is to take Colombia by force — it has kidnapped, extorted and executed thousands of innocent civilians, bombed buildings, assassinated hundreds of political leaders, and, with two other local terrorist organizations, have turned Colombia into one of the most violent and dangerous countries in the world. All in all, FARC has caused the deaths of more than 100,000 people.

Mr. Chavez has long sympathized with some of the world’s most prolific human rights violators — from his proclaimed “brotherhood” with Saddam Hussein and kind words for the Taliban, to the close economic and political ties he sustains with the leaders of Iran and Cuba. Much of this is international demagoguery to promote himself as the world’s leading anti-American. But the support Mr. Chavez and his government provide the FARC terrorists, support he has denied for nine years, is the clearest example of why he is a threat to human rights in the region.

The documentable ties between Venezuela and the FARC date back to August of 1999 — just months into the Chavez presidency. Leaked letters signed by Ramon Rodriguez, a Chavez aide, revealed that the government had offered fuel, money and other support to the FARC. Mr. Chavez also ordered another henchman, Ignacio Arcaya (who later became Venezuelan ambassador in Washington) to give cash gifts to the FARC. Messrs. Arcaya, Rodriguez and Chavez denied the allegations despite eyewitnesses to the conversations.

More evidence surfaced over the years tying Mr. Chavez and his government to the FARC. In one instance, the Colombian army seized hundreds of Venezuelan rifles in the hands of the FARC. Nothing came of it. On another occasion, Mr. Chavez included a FARC terrorist as a personal bodyguard on a state visit to Colombia. Despite photos and a local outcry in Colombia, the rest of the world blithely ignored the incident. Meanwhile, FARC leaders were routinely welcomed in Venezuela and treated as heads of state. Prominent FARC leader Olga Marin, for example, spoke on the floor of Venezuela’s National Assembly, praising Mr. Chavez as a hero of the rebel movement.

Things got more complicated for the Venezuelan government when, on Dec. 14, 2004, Ricardo Granda, widely known as the FARC’s “foreign secretary,” was arrested on the Colombian border. One of the most senior, well-connected and highly skilled political strategists in the FARC’s history, Granda had been living in Venezuela’s capital enjoying Venezuelan citizenship and even participating in a government-sponsored networking conference attended by Mr. Chavez. The capture of Granda had consequences: the military officer in charge of Venezuela’s anti-terrorism unit, Humberto Quintero, was arrested, horrifically tortured and now sits in a maximum security prison for the charge of “treason.” Still, Venezuela kept denying its support of the FARC.

On Jan. 10 of this year, two female hostages held by the FARC were released in a widely publicized deal brokered by the Chavez government. The eagerness of the Venezuelan government to take credit for the release was such that they sent a camera crew that broadcast unedited footage. The broadcast shows a man shaking the hands of the terrorists (who happen to be bearing standard-issue Venezuelan army rifles). The man salutes them: “In the name of President Chavez… we are very attentive to your struggle. Keep that spirit, keep that force, and count on us.”

He ends with “Take care of yourselves, comrades.” The man is Ramon Rodriguez, the person who, in 1999, had written the letters offering the FARC government support. Mr. Rodriguez was an aide to Mr. Chavez back then — now he is the Venezuelan minister of justice.

Mr. Chavez’s public call for the legitimization of the FARC and a video that shows the chief law enforcement officer of Venezuela shaking hands with and cheering on terrorists should lead to a swift condemnation by human rights NGOs and governments that have believed that “neutrality” in the Colombian conflict is a virtue. It is vital to recognize the role played by Venezuela in supporting a force that has done nothing but perpetuate misery and bloodshed in a bid to end Colombia’s democracy and establish a brutal dictatorship.

Thor Halvorssen, a film producer, is president of the Human Rights Foundation.

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