Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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Chavez and the FARC-The Unveiling
This weekend Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez publicly defended Colombia's FARC rebels as a "true army" with a political project that must be respected and negotiated with.

Coming on the heels of his belatedly successful efforts to free two hostages (leaving 750 or so still in hands of the group), Chavez unveiled his role as defenders of an armed group that primarily lives off of drug trafficking and kidnap-for-ransom.

"They are insurgent forces that have a political project," Chavez said in a marathon speech to lawmakers. "I say it even though someone could be bothered by it."

He demanded that the outside world stop referring to the FARC as "terrorists" and embrace them as rebels with a cause.

It is a Marxist-Leninist cause that has long-since run its course. Even when I was spending time with the FARC in the late 1990s, they had, in a pragmatic and capitalist way, abandoned any pretense of Marxist egalitarianism or ideology in the field.

I have covered many insurgencies in Latin America, including the FMLN in El Salvador; the Contras in Honduras/Nicaragua; M-19, FARC, EPL and ELN in Colombia and the Tumpac Amaru in Peru. There was indeed a time when, whatever you thought of their ideologies, there were ideologies and principles impelling the revolution (or counter-revolution) forward.

Those days are gone, and have been for decades in the case of the FARC, which largely refuses to recognize the historic reality of the collapse of the world-wide Marxist movement.

The corruption of the steadily-increasing amount of drug money into the ranks, coupled with the strategic decision to use kidnapping (and holding hostages for years at a time) as both a political weapon and fund-raising mechanism, makes the claim of the group's "political project" untenable at every level.

It is largely an economic project that profits from the extreme poverty that continues to exist in much of the country, the lack of state infrastructure, etc.

This economic project shows up in different and dangerous ways. The most obvious is in drug trafficking. U.S. and Latin American officials are noting an alarming rise in the number of drug shipments that originate in Venezuela territory, into Central America, the Caribbean or Mexico.

If the Chavez government is not protecting the shipments, then it interdiction forces are among the most incompetent in a region not known for setting high standards in that regard.

Chavez's formal embrace of the FARC only makes his strenuous denials that he maintains a formal relationship with them more difficult to believe. His credibility was already strained by the presence of numerous FARC leaders living without much fear in Caracas.

Others are in the vast military expenditures that Chavez has embarked on, including the construction of a Kalashinkov (AK-47) assault rifle factory. Just what the region needs, cheap and plentiful small weapons floating around with little control. Ask the West Africans how that turns out.

Human rights groups have, for decades, documented the abuses of the FARC, from forced recruitment of children to systematic attacks on civilians.

Chavez's rise to power has breathed new life into the FARC, which had, in recent decades, become one of the few rebel groups that had managed to alienate just about everyone.

Now they have a friend and protector, and one with a grandiose vision of the Bolivarian project across Latin America. Not a good combination on a continent where historic inequities have yet to be redressed, where economies are stagnating and where armed movements and dictatorships were the norm less than a generation ago.

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