Venezuela and Colombia clash over kidnapping of FARC leader in Caracas

The dispute between Venezuela and Colombia over the kidnapping of a FARC leader in Caracas continues and threatens to involve other Latin American countries. It is becoming increasingly clear that this incident is part of a renewed offensive by Washington against Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.

A new offensive of the US against the Bolivarian revolution

The dispute between Venezuela and Colombia over the kidnapping of a FARC leader in Caracas continues and threatens to involve other Latin American countries. It is becoming increasingly clear that this incident is part of a renewed offensive by Washington against Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.

The events go back to December 13th when Rodrigo Granda, known as the Colombian FARC guerrillas’ “foreign affairs minister”, was kidnapped in the centre of Caracas, while being interviewed by Colombian journalist Omar Gonzalez. The kidnapping took place in broad daylight, at about 4pm, near the Bellas Artes metro station and not far from the Hilton hotel. Granda was put in the back of a green four-wheel drive vehicle and then taken on a 14-hour journey to Cúcuta in Colombia. According to Granda himself, some of the men who took him identified themselves as DISIP (Venezuelan police) agents, and some others had a Colombian paisa accent. The kidnappers, travelling in four vehicles with tainted windscreens, crossed 7 Venezuelan states and must have crossed some 14 police and army checkpoints.

On December 14th the Colombian authorities announced the capture of Granda. From early on there were contradictory versions about the events. Some police officials said he had been captured on the 13th when trying to book into a hotel in Cúcuta, others said he had been captured in the street, but they all agreed that he had been arrested on December 13th.

Immediately after the announcement was made this official version was challenged. An article published on December 15th in the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, already speculated that Granda had been taken in Caracas and not in Cúcuta. On December 22nd the editor of the Colombian left wing newspaper “Voz”, Carlos Lozano, wrote an article in which he gave very precise details of the circumstances of the kidnapping of Granda in Caracas, and El Tiempo was quoting unnamed “intelligence” sources confirming the events.

Despite the mounting evidence there was no official response on the part of the Venezuelan government until December 28th, when Minister of Interior Jesse Chacón announced that an investigation was being opened into the case. Two weeks is a long time for the Venezuelan government to remain silent on a case as serious as this, and this led intellectuals and other supporters of the Venezuelan revolution to publicly ask the Bolivarian government to open an investigation.

Then in January events precipitated. From January 5th, Venezuelan Minister of the Interior, Jesse Chacón admitted that someone had been kidnapped in Caracas on December 13th in that location, and that the Venezuelan police was investigating the participation of Venezuelan and Colombian police agents in the events and whether the person taken was Granda. On January 9th Venezuelan president Chávez declared that, “the Colombian police are lying to president Uribe” and that Granda had been taken in Caracas. Opposition MPs in Colombia said that the Colombian government could have paid up to US$2 million for the capture of Granda. Finally on January 12th, Colombian Defence Minister Jorge Uribe admitted they had paid bounty seekers a reward “for information that allowed” the capture of Granda.

On January 13th, a number of agents of the Venezuelan National Guard were arrested in connection with this case. Among them there was a lieutenant colonel and a captain, all of them from the Group Against Extortion and Kidnapping of the National Guard in the state of Táchira on the border with Colombia. Three members of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, one high-ranking officer and two lower rank officers were also arrested. Jesse Chacón declared that these agents had carried out the operation in conjunction with the Colombian police, specifically under the orders of captain Francisco Antonio Rojas Bejarano, of the Unified Action Group for Personal Freedom of the Colombian Police in Cúcuta, ironically specialised in anti-kidnapping operations. Chacón added that 4 Colombian judicial police (Digin) agents that had been captured on December 9th in Aragua (Venezuela) where Granda was living, were originally involved in the operation.

These Digin agents were later released on December 22nd and sent back to Colombia. At that time the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo was quoting “intelligence sources” saying they had participated in the arrest of Granda. However, the Venezuelan authorities accepted the version of the Colombian authorities that they were participating in anti-extortion and anti-narcotics operations and released them.

Despite the fact that the Colombian government still denies that any of their police officers violated Venezuelan sovereignty, Jesse Chacon explained in detail that they had identified a Colombian police operative that was in Caracas in those days and made a large number of phone calls to Colombia on December 13th and 14th. The implication is that the Colombian authorities not only paid someone for “information” as they claim, but that they participated directly in coordinating the whole operation.

On January 14th president Chávez announced that Venezuelan national sovereignty had been violated and demanded an apology from Colombian president Uribe. He further suspended all commercial and economic agreements with Colombia, including a proposed pipeline and announced the withdrawal of the Venezuelan ambassador in Bogotá. Despite this, Chávez left a door open for Uribe, by saying he was convinced he was not aware of the events.

The Colombian response, on the same day, insisted that the Colombian Police had not violated Venezuelan sovereignty, and put the blame on Venezuela saying that the UN were against countries “harbouring terrorists”, and that Granda had publicly participated in the Bolivarian People’s Congress in Caracas, the week before he was arrested.

This was a clear provocation, designed, once again, to use the allegation that Venezuela supports the FARC guerrillas in order to isolate it diplomatically and prepare a further provocation against the Bolivarian Revolution. In fact, the Colombian authorities were so clumsy that the request for Interpol to chase up Granda was not filed until January 9th, nearly a month after his arrest!

The US, through their ambassador in Colombia, were obviously quick off the mark to support the Colombian government.

Diplomacy and revolutionary policies

What is the meaning of these events? First of all we must make clear that we reject the kidnapping of revolutionary activists. Despite our disagreement with the methods and strategy of the FARC, the kidnapping of Granda in Caracas is a throwback to the times of Operación Condor, in the 1970s, when dictatorial regimes in Latin America collaborated in the kidnapping of opposition activists in other countries.

We must also criticise the slowness of the Venezuelan government in replying to these events. It took them two weeks to make an official statement, when the Colombian media was already quoting intelligence sources confirming Granda had been kidnapped in Caracas. They took as good the Colombian authorities’ word vouching for the Colombian police officers arrested in Aragua on December 9th and released them, at the same time when the Colombian media was quoting the same sources saying they had participated in the kidnapping of Granda.

This raises the question of the role of international diplomacy in revolutionary politics. It is clear that any progressive or revolutionary government must proceed with caution, analyse in detail the balance of forces and choose its battles carefully. But the main point is that diplomacy must always be accompanied by international revolutionary politics and the former must not be determined by the latter. Compromises may be necessary at times, particularly when the balance of forces is unfavourable. The Bolsheviks in power in Russia were forced to make many such compromises. But these should always be clearly understood as compromises and explained as such to the revolutionary movement; otherwise the risk is that they will disorient the revolutionary movement. For some time in Venezuela there has been uneasiness within the Bolivarian movement about the tactics pursued by Chavez in relation to the Uribe government.

It is important not to fall into provocations, but in this case what probably happened was that the moderate, reformist sector of the Bolivarian leadership got the upper hand and advised “caution” until the whole business exploded. The problem is that by pursuing such a tactic, of remaining silent for two weeks, the only thing that was achieved was to create confusion, not amongst the imperialists and its agents in Bogotá, but amongst those who support the Bolivarian revolution.

One cannot allege ignorance or naivety, since this is not the first time that an incident like this has happened. In February 2001, Colombian police officers from the DAS, captured Colombian guerrilla ELN member Ballestas. Venezuelan security officers also participated in that arrest, but shortly afterwards the Venezuelan authorities protested at the presence of Colombian officers in Caracas, saying this was a violation of national sovereignty and released Ballestas, only to arrest him shortly afterwards on different charges. After much debate, when the Colombian authorities formally requested Ballestas’ extradition he was handed over.

More recently, on December 3rd, the regional offices of the Venezuelan Communist Party in the border state of Zulia (still ruled by an opposition governor) were raided by Colombian police officers from the DAS in collaboration with Venezuelan police and National Guard officers. The PCV also denounced surveillance operations against participants in the Bolivarian Peoples’ Congress in Maracaibo (Zulia).

In the border states of Zulia and Tachira, the activity of Colombian paramilitaries in connivance with elements within the Venezuelan security forces has been known for some time.

There has now been a reaction, and strong diplomatic protests have been combined with the calling of a massive demonstration on January 23rd in defence of Venezuelan national sovereignty and a campaign of meetings and discussions. As with the case of the infiltration of 100 Colombian paramilitaries in Venezuela a year ago, the provocation of the Colombian government must be answered by mass mobilisation and a campaign of political education of the masses in the revolutionary movement. It can actually further radicalise the movement.

A provocation of the Colombian government...

But we must be clear. This is not just a bungled operation of the Colombian government. First of all it is a clear and deliberate provocation, and secondly it has not been carried out without the participation to one degree or another of the US administration.

If the intention of the Colombian government was just to arrest Granda, they could have gone through the legal channels. They could have given the Venezuelan government all the information they had on him and his whereabouts, they could have filed the case with Interpol and tried to put public pressure on the Chavez government to get him arrested.

The fact that they resorted to kidnapping him (as they did with the arrest of FARC leader Simon Trinidad in Ecuador) shows that they feel they can use whatever methods they want, legal or illegal, and not only that, they want to prove it to the world. It also means they feel confident that they have support within the Venezuelan armed forces and security services.

This has quite serious implications for the revolutionary movement in Venezuela. We have explained before that one of the main challenges for the Bolivarian movement is the question of the state apparatus. Though it is true that there has been a purge of the most prominent reactionary elements within the army and some of the security services, particularly after the April 2002 coup and the December 2002 lock out, events like this show that there are still plenty of unreliable elements within it. The old truth that a revolution cannot just take over the old state apparatus and use it for its own purposes has been further confirmed. The officers in the National Guard and other security agencies have been trained for years to defend the interests of the capitalists and that shapes their whole ideology. And putting a few trustworthy people at the top cannot solve this problem. There needs to be a serious purge of all sections of the state apparatus, not only the security services, but also the judiciary, the ministries, etc. A new, revolutionary state apparatus must be created, that is accountable to and under the control of the revolutionary movement through its democratic structures.

...as part of a US offensive

On the other hand this incident also marks a new turn in US policy towards Venezuela. This was explicitly stated in an article in the Washington Post entitled “US to speak out on Chavez policies”. Quoting unnamed “Bush administration officials”, the article says that Washington will adopt “a tougher policy towards the country”. This will be based on “political and diplomatic measures, rather than economic sanctions that might hurt the US economy”. The US want to put pressure on other Latin American countries to launch a diplomatic offensive against Venezuela. “The United States has been alone in some of its statements defending principles of human rights and democracy, and that’s not the way it should be”, said to the Washington Post an unnamed “senior Bush administration official”. The article continues: “Although some countries might be intimidated by the oil wealth that Mr. Chavez controls, ‘it’s important that leaders in the hemisphere take stock of [his actions] and tell him, as a community, that it’s unacceptable,’ the official said.”

The same sources accused Chavez of “supporting radical groups” from other countries in the region, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, know as the FARC, and “undermining democratically elected governments” in those countries.”

The Washington Post obviously does not get leaks from unnamed sources within the White House just by chance. This is the Bush administration speaking and sending a clear warning. And when was this article published? On January 14th, just as Chavez announced the suspension of commercial agreements with Colombia. On the same dates furious articles against Chavez appeared in the London Financial Times and The Economist attacking Chavez on his latest moves on land reform.

In a Pavlovian reaction, a number of Latin American governments, when hearing the voice of their master in the North, immediately issued statements “offering to mediate in the diplomatic row between Colombia and Venezuela”, instead of stating the obvious: that an unacceptable violation of national sovereignty had occurred. This was the case with Peru, Mexico and Brazil. And what did Uribe propose as a way out of the diplomatic crisis? A regional summit of presidents. All this follows in the tiniest details the strategy outlined by a “senior Bush administration official” in the Washington Post.

After the poodles had barked it was the turn for the master to make his voice heard. In this case it was her voice, that of Condoleezza Rice. In her first hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee she described Chavez as a “negative force” in Latin America. “We are very concerned about a democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way,” said Rice, accusing Chávez of meddling in the affairs of other countries, having taken action against members of the opposition and stifling the independent media. “We’re going to have to, as a Hemisphere that signed a Democracy Charter, be devoted to making sure that those who signed that charter live up to it.”

Clearly a new offensive is under way to isolate Venezuela. Washington is worried by the effects that the Venezuelan revolution is having throughout Latin America. For instance, the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement, the US imposed economic project for the continent, which was supposed to be implemented from January 2005 is now on hold. Instead, Latin America countries in December signed an economic collaboration agreement of their own. The Latin American ruling classes are weak and dependant on the US, but nevertheless, Chavez’s idea of an economic alliance of Latin America comes into conflict with the interests of Washington.

Another move that has greatly worried the US has been the deals between Venezuela and China on the export of oil (see “US unease at losing supply of Venezuelan oil”). They rightly fear that this is an attempt by Venezuela to diversify their exports of oil (now 80% goes to the US).

This goes to prove that the idea, promoted by the moderates within the Bolivarian leadership, that winning the August 15th referendum would disarm imperialism, and prevent new attacks on the part of the US, was false. We warned at that time that no amount of democratic credentials would reconcile US imperialism with the revolution in Venezuela. On August 16th, the day after the referendum victory, Alan Woods, in an article called “A crushing blow to the counterrevolution” already stated:

“Those leaders of the Bolivarian movement who argued that, by holding the referendum, the enemies of the revolution would be silenced, have been shown to be wrong. The internal and external enemies of the Venezuelan revolution cannot be reconciled by elections, referendums and negotiations. They will only be satisfied when the revolution is defeated. Not to recognise this is the height of irresponsibility.”

The only way to secure the victory of the Bolivarian revolution is to solve the two main challenges it faces now: the question of the state and the question of the economy (still largely in the hands of private capitalists, bankers and landowners).

Yesterday the Chavez government passed a decree to nationalise Venepal and put it under workers’ control. This is a step in the right direction. If this were to be implemented throughout the economy as a whole, we would have a Venezuela free of capitalist exploitation, with workers’ democracy and socialism. This would become a massive pole of attraction for workers and peasants throughout Latin America and beyond. This, and not any amount of “clever” diplomatic manoeuvring is the guarantee for the survival of the Venezuelan revolution in the international arena.