Merchant of Death
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Chavez's Abrupt About-Face on the FARC
What does Hugo Chavez's abrupt call for the FARC to end its war and free all its hostages mean for the Colombian rebels? And what does it mean for Chavez?

Chavez, who earlier this year repeatedly called for the world to recognize the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a legitimate "belligerent force" rather than a terrorist group, said the guerrillas were "out of step" with the times and that their war was "history."

In his weekly television and radio programme on Sunday, Mr Chavez urged the Farc's new leader, Alfonso Cano, to "let all these people go".

"There are old folk, women, sick people, soldiers who have been prisoners in the mountain for 10 years," he added.
The Venezuelan president said ending the rebellion could lead to a peace process between the rebels and the Colombian government.
"The guerrilla war is history," he said. "At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place."

Chavez's statements come at an interesting juncture: The FARC is at is weakest point in years, with three of its top seven commanders dying in the past two months, and a new leadership struggling to impose order and control on units in the field; and Chavez showing off some of the sophisticated weaponry he recently purchased from Russia and elsewhere.

This included new European-made Otomat MK2 missiles and Russian Sukhoi fighter jets.

It seems that Chavez believes his own rhetoric, that his primary threat is from a US invasion. While few even in the region share this assessment, he has spent several billion dollars on weapons in the past three years in an effort to show Venezuela's power of "dissuasion and defense."

So, why publicly throw the FARC under the bus now, after defending them internationally, despite the damning evidence gathered from FARC computers that the rebels had direct lines of access to senior Venezuelan military and intelligence officials, and Chavez himself when necessary?

The documents, which Interpol agreed came from computers that were not tampered with by Colombian police, were a treasure trove of information on the alliance between the senior FARC leadership and the leaders of Venezuela, Ecuador and others.

Perhaps Chavez is giving a strikingly public vote of no-confidence in the FARC's new leadership. Chavez knows Cano well, and perhaps does not believe the academic can hold together a largely-peasant based movement.

Or perhaps he wants to cut his loses by not backing a losing cause any longer. The FARC enjoys virtually no support, even in the rest of Latin America.

If Chavez were to negotiate the release of the high-profile FARC hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, he would be a hero. If he were able to deliver the three American hostages, US pressure would ease, and Chavez would gain even more.

Or, perhaps in keeping with his past, Chavez is immersed in some hidden game that has little or nothing to do with what he is actually saying. Time will tell.

In the mean time, it must be terribly worrisome for Cano and the rest of the FARC leadership to see the public retreat of their only international defender. When a losing streak reaches this proportion, perhaps it is time to fold one's cards and get out of the game.

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