For a man with the diplomatic finesse to secure the freedom of American hostages in such places as Syria, Cuba, Iraq and Yugoslavia, the Reverend Jesse Jackson can’t take a hint.
The civil-rights leader is seeking the release of Kevin Scott Sutay, a U.S. military veteran captured in late June by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as he trekked through a guerrilla-controlled stretch of Colombian jungle despite warnings from local authorities. Late last week, FARC leaders asked Jackson to oversee Sutay’s release, as a good-faith gesture in the continuing peace talks between the rebel group and the Colombian government. The idea was apparently hatched in late September when Jackson attended an Afro-Colombian conference in Colombia.
The trouble is Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won’t allow it. He suggested as much in a Sept. 28 tweet that didn’t mention Jackson by name: “Only the Red Cross will be authorized to facilitate the delivery of the American kidnapped by the FARC. We won’t allow a media spectacle.”
Santos -- and the Colombian people -- know the almost-50-year-old rebel group well and have seen this story before. More often than not, FARC's offers to surrender prisoners are calculated for maximum political effect, as when the group released hostages in early 2008 to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a leader who insisted the FARC was not a terrorist organization. Plus, the group often goes back on its political promises. Early last year, the FARC vowed to give up kidnapping for ransom, but police and civil organizations say abductions continue. (The FARC has argued that Sutay's "capture" was technically not a kidnapping.)
Turning over Sutay to a respected human-rights figure can earn the guerillas credibility and more time as they negotiate for peace, exactly what the FARC -- a group that lives off of extortion, drug trafficking and illegal mining -- wants. That is probably why Santos implicitly vetoed Jackson’s mediation and why the president also refused the help of Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, the FARC’s initial choice to lead the release. Santos’s insistence that the Red Cross rescue Sutay alone makes sense for him politically, too. With a presidential election slated for May 2014, the appearance of a political victory for the FARC could hurt his popularity if he chooses to run again.
Meanwhile, the FARC continues to dress the hostage release in humanitarian camouflage. In a Sept. 29 communique, the group lamented that Santos prevented a “humanitarian mission" led by Jackson from rescuing a U.S. veteran. The statement added that Santos “has not understood the peaceful, humanitarian gesture of the FARC.” Ivan Marquez, the leading peace negotiator for the FARC, belabored the point in a Sept. 29 tweet: “The liberation of Kevin Scott, is a unilateral decision by the FARC based on strictly humanitarian considerations.”
Colombians who have fought the FARC have heard this before. Former President Alvaro Uribe, who decimated the insurgents during his eight years in office, warned Jackson in a Sept. 30 tweet: “Rev Jesse Jackson: Narcoterrorist FARC is the scourge of Colombians not a liberator of racial minorities.” Rafael Guarin, an anti-terrorism expert and former deputy defense minister, was more explicit in a Sept. 30 tweet: “FARC propaganda seeks to make the state responsible for kidnapping. Who can explain this to Jackson?”
Ordinary Colombians also don’t hold the guerilla group and its “humanitarian” moves in high regard. When Semana Magazine asked readers in July if Cordoba’s help was needed to gain Sutay’s freedom, Twitter user Juan Sebastian Baron’s sarcastic retort captured the mood: Did the FARC “need her help to kidnap him in the first place or what?” Luis Felipe Pinzon from Bogota was more direct: “They can free him without anybody’s mediation. The only thing needed is a willingness to do so.”
The left in Colombia sees Jackson’s role in a more favorable light. “It makes sense that a U.S. figure participates in the process," Ivan Cepeda Castro, a lawmaker for the leftist Polo Democratico Alternativo party, told HispanTV, an Iranian government-owned Spanish TV channel. "This could help build bridges with influential opinion makers in the U.S.”
Santos seems to have kept silent on the subject since his Sept. 28 tweet. Meanwhile, Jackson seems to be saying all the wrong things. First he asked for the U.S. for help. “The U.S. government must now use its leverage to get an American veteran out of Colombia who has been set free on an unconditional basis if I am able to bring him out," Jackson told the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service.
Then Jackson made what sounded like an ultimatum, explaining to Russian television network RT America that the U.S. and Colombia must rescue Sutay within 48 hours. "If not, I am going back to Colombia and stay there until he is set free.” When the RT reporter asked Jackson if it was fair to ask Colombia to “negotiate with terrorists,” as the U.S. has labeled the FARC, Jackson downplayed the term. “We should not use these red-line language buzzes that stop us from talking.”
If Jackson wants Colombians to help him bring home an American citizen, his language probably isn’t helping, either. The FARC has used hostages and mediators as respite from losing a war at home, as well as to build credibility abroad. Backing the FARC’s so-called “humanitarian” surrender of Sutay only strengthens the group’s position. Humanitarian work is what the Red Cross does when it picks up the FARC’s victims; keeping people holed up in the jungle is criminal activity.
(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter.)