According to Piedad Cordoba, FBI agents visited the Quito hospital where two survivors of the Colombian attack on Ecuador were recovering, to threaten them with extradition.
Óscar Montes and Harold Abueta got the story, for Cambio.
The liberal Senator Piedad Córdoba is going through one of the most difficult times in her political career. Her role as a mediator with the FARC for a humanitarian agreement and her alliance with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in that regard has been costly. Since November, according to an Invamer-Gallup poll, her negative image has more than doubled, from 32% to 69% and her positive image fallen more than half, from 42% to 20%. In various public places she’s had to face public repudiation. Her retirement has even been hinted at, or at least, from that of the Liberal Party in which she has agitated from the left – neither in power, nor in fashion – her entire life.
For Piedad Córdoba, in such a scenario, nothing is a given. Her media excesses, her exaggerated claims, her access to the FARC and her inopportune acclaim for Chávez have been highly visible and criticized. On the other hand, all of that overshadowed her success in the liberation of six kidnapped people. Her politically combative past and confrontational positions as a woman of a racial minority have energized the debate.
After a long period of questions met with silence, Piedad Córdoba agreed to speak with Óscar Montes and Harold Abueta, journalists for Cambio, about the situation, the latest developments with the FARC and a humanitarian accord, and about her relationships with Chávez and Uribe.
Cambio: No-one knows exactly how you ended up in this humanitarian exchange and a friend of Hugo Chávez, as well as a facilitator for the Uribe government, who you’ve always ferociously opposed. How did that come about?
Piedad Cordoba: Everything started last year when I was at a forum in Venezuela and was invited to the Aló Presidente television program. I went because I wanted Chávez to listen to my proposals for a humanitarian exchange. I hadn’t spoken before with him; I’d only sent some messages but I believe he didn’t take me seriously. When the President became aware of my presence, he invited me to speak. That day I asked for 100 million for an aqueduct from Quibdó, money which certainly never arrived because the Colombian government didn’t permit it.
What else happened?
That day we saw Professor Moncayo on television. When he began to speak about the kidnapped in Colombia he began to cry. I said to myself then that I had to start working on that. Then came the meeting with President Uribe at the Palace and it was there that he told me, “Piedad, you have to start to work for a humanitarian exchange. You have the complete support of the Government.” I was surprised by the offer, frankly, because I thought that he couldn’t have been less interested in me.
Why did the name of Hugo Chávez come forward? Did President Uribe propose him, or did you?
From the beginning, the high commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, who was in a meeting with Uribe, together with Bernardo Moreno and Alicia Arango, said that whatever dialogue took place, President Chávez ought to be included because his name had been well received by the FARC. I agreed, but from the beginning I made it clear that I couldn’t stand by with arms folded, depending on what Chávez might do from Caracas. That was when I began to work on contacting Raúl Reyes.
Had you ever spoken with Reyes?
Never. I didn’t know him.
How did you reach him?
I did so well in my efforts that I arrived first on the scene with Reyes, even before [the Venezuelan] Minister Rodríguez Chacín, who Chávez had delegated to seek contact with the FARC. My meeting with Reyes was made public and everyone in the country saw the pictures.
The camp where you met with Reyes is the same that was attacked by the Colombian army?
It is my understanding that it was not. I believe it was a camp set up for this meeting and it was in Colombia. Some days later I learned in Caracas that it had been bombed by the air force but Reyes was already gone.
Did you make progress in this meeting with Reyes in respect to an exchange and liberation of the kidnapped?
Very much so. Although at the beginning they were quite distrustful due to the fact that I came from the Liberal Party, we came to consider the names that could be on an eventual agenda. The subject of liberations and proof of survival was brought up, something in which I was very insistent. Also a meeting between Chávez and Manuel Marulanda was brought up for the first time.
How committed was Reyes to these issues?
He was so committed that he even risked being located because he called Marulanda on his satellite phone to inform Marulanda of the progress in the discussions. He was consulted in everything and everything had to be approved by him. It left me no doubt that Marulanda is the one in charge of the FARC. No step can be taken without his approval and that was reconfirmed some time afterwards in a meeting with Iván Márquez in Caracas.
How did you learn of Reyes’ death? What was your reaction?
On that day I was feeling good because everything was going really well. I was writing a summary about the releases and my meetings in the United States to send to the FARC, when a friend called me to tel me about Raúl’s death. I felt stricken and very distressed, for I understood that a hard blow had been struck against peace. My letter to the FARC remained half-written and I could not tell them about the progress made in Washington, where the liberation of one of the three kidnapped North Americans had been discussed, which had been one of my proposals.
They say that Reyes was very stubborn and more of an obstacle than a facilitator…
Raúl Reyes was committed to the humanitarian exchange and to the liberation of the kidnapped. Moreover, he was convinced that the situation in Latin America was a given for negotiation. So his death hit me very hard. It was grotesque, they were not in hot pursuit, there was no confrontation. The government lied and looked for a key moment to kill him. It was a frontal attack against a humanitarian accord.
Former presidents and politicians say that Raúl Reyes was the Achilles heel in the process. Is that true?
No. He was committed to the process. I even remember that Gloria, his wife, who was also killed in the bombing, told me in a meeting I had with him that she was in favor of sending evidence.
But it’s hard to believe that Raúl was committed to peace after the experience at Caguán…
I don’t know that that was such a bad experience. I believe that the country had run out of options and the important thing at Caguán was to maintain the accord and not give satisfaction to just a few, in the sense that it had to be concluded because the FARC was not in a peaceful mood. I read it differently than everyone else. How many things could have been avoided if Caguán had not broken down?
With Reyes dead, what do you believe will happen?
This will bring its own consequences. I don’t want the process to be paralyzed but things will be different.
Why do you say that the Government was looking for a key moment to kill him? Do you really believe it’s that easy to choose a particular moment, when they’d been pursuing him unsuccessfully for years?
His death happened two or three days after a meeting in Panamá with Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, Daniel Parfait (former French ambassador to Colombia and present husband of Íngrid Betancourt’s sister) and Noé Sans, adviser to the French government. It’s my understanding that the meeting happened because Restrepo told them that the Government had authorized them to talk with Reyes to see how Íngrid’s liberation might be brought about. Her liberation had already begun to be considered.
And that had to do with the attack on the camp?
The French called Reyes on his satellite phone and it was from there that he was listened to. Sans even told a friend of mine in those days that he felt responsible for Reyes’ death, because he believed that it was through his phone call that the guerrilla leader was located.
Do you think that Reyes’ death will affect your interactions with the FARC?
I don’t think so. I told the FARC that Raúl’s blood had to be the fertilizer that brings the accord to fruition. While it’s true that Iván Márquez is the one who will have to interact with Chávez for the FARC, Raúl’s work was important because he was a true “Foreign Minister.”
In what sense was he a Foreign Minister?
Because people from all over the world passed through his camps; academics and politicians from everywhere. The day that I went, some Europeans were there as well.
Who were they?
I don’t know, but they were talking about peace. Contrary to common perception, there’s a lot of sympathy for the FARC elsewhere.
Did it appear that the authorities were on Reyes’ heels?
Yes, there was a lot of harassment. In fact, Chávez told me that two days after my visit to the camp, it had been bombed. I was worried because I could have been responsible for something and so I told Rodríguez Chacín that they should take charge of the issues of proof and meetings.
Why did the FARC liberate some of the kidnapped and not others?
They liberated people because of the breaking of the humanitarian agreement and the attacks against Chávez and me. Minister Rodríguez Chacín continued making contact and I continued with my agenda in the United States. I believe that they realized that we were making a serious effort and accepted what we were saying: that Emmanuel, the women and the most seriously ill should be liberated. In January, when they gave up Emmanuel, I said that I was going call for the release of all remaining civilians and those in uniform by way of a humanitarian agreement. I was very insistent that a gringo should be released.
Why was it important to you that a North American be released?
Because the United States was granting important conditions to reach an accord. When I sat down with Iván Márquez and told him what I’d achieved, they jumped at the news. I had to convince people close to Chávez about the importance of releasing a gringo. What’s more, Thomas Shannon (Undersecretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs) told us that Reyes had changed a lot and was more open because in five years of wanting to negotiate with the FARC nothing had been achieved. I told him it was because Chávez had intervened.
What do you think will come of the liberation issue?
I want to be optimistic but there will be difficulties. Although the main interlocutor for the FARC is Iván Márquez, Reyes was a key person for a humanitarian agreement. But Uribe wanted to impede that and therefore I don’t think there will be more liberations. The Secretariat understands that Reyes was tricked. Building trust now is very difficult. While President Uribe now wants to sit down and talk, the FARC believe that it’s a strategy to locate and kill them.
Many believe Íngrid Betancourt is the “crown jewel” and that she may be the last to be released. Do you think this is true?
I don’t believe it, I wouldn’t think it’s like that.
Let’s talk about Rodrigo Granda, released by Uribe at Sarkozy’s request. What role has this played?
It’s been fundamental. In Caracas he was one of the most active and most inclined toward the liberation of one of the gringos. We were so enthusiastic that were were already talking about a new Constitution (laughs).
Do you really believe the FARC are inclined to reach an agreement?
I believe so, yes. For now I’m going to remain optimistic but it’s clear that the FARC are quite dissatisfied with the government. Furthermore the atmosphere has chilled. I’m very worried by this business of the chopping off of Iván Ríos’s hand. There’s a lot of degradation, and by that I mean that there are people who don’t care for a peace process or liberations. The case of Ríos is much more serious than that of Reyes because it demonstrates the level to which the conflict has sunk. Obviously it also demonstrates the FARC’s internal crisis.
But distrust of the FARC by Colombians has to do with their lies and manipulations. For example the case of Emmanuel was very serious.
Out of respect for Clara Rojas and those who knew what happened, I would not care to discuss it. Surely later, what really happened will be known.
The FARC attacked the good faith of many people, among them yourself and Chávez.
I don’t think so. Everything was driven by the government with the sole purpose of stopping the liberations. What happened with Reyes is the same as what happens every time we make progress on the issue of [prisoner] exchange. In the case of Emmanuel, the play was to stop the delivery of these people. It’s curious and also serious that every time there are liberations, there is a warlike response from the government.
The recent blows to the FARC brought General Freddy Padilla, Commander of the [Colombian] Armed Forces, to claim that we are nearing the beginning of the end of this group. What do you think?
I wouldn’t say so. Undeniably, they have internal problems, but they can’t kill everyone. Furthermore, we can’t fail to recognize that there are structural social problems in Colombia which are the basis for the conflict.
What do you think about Bush’s announcement that they are studying the possibility of putting Venezuela on the list of countries that support terrorism?
That seems very serious to me. I’ve never seen Bush speaking in this way against Venezuela and threatening to place it on that list. Many people from Colombia asked him to say that.
That’s very serious, what you’re saying…
The gringos are so involved that FBI agents went to the two surviving girls and told them that if they didn’t confess as to the whereabouts of the North Americans, they were going to extradite them. They are the same types I found in the New York court. They can go wherever and however they please.
According to opinion surveys, it doesn’t seem that the people will recognize your efforts to liberate the hostages. You seem to be one of the most unpopular people…
Not even Mancuso has an unpopularity rating equal to mine. When one sees the array of television news such as that shown on RCN and Caracol, you’re left with the feeling that you’re a public enemy. They call me “traitor,” “FARC ally,” and criticize me because I am a friend of Chávez. It’s a very strong media campaign.
Do you believe you’re paying a very high price for trying to liberate the hostages?
I always knew what all this would cost me, but I faced it because nobody was doing anything, nobody was facing the issue of peace for fear of what the surveys would say. If I have to return to sit down with the FARC I will do it. The surveys don’t matter to me.
To what would you attribute the recent change of attitude by President Chávez with President Uribe?
To Cuba’s intervention, but also to that of Argentina, Brazil and other countries. Everyone says that it’s necessary to find a way to get closer to President Uribe, not to corner him. The most important, as Chávez has said to me, is to continue seeking a humanitarian agreement.
How true is it that Chávez negotiated some liberations from the FARC in exchange for recognition of their belligerent status?
It’s not true. I listened to Chávez and I was very firm with the FARC, telling them: “Tell me now if you’re going to agree to an accord or not, because I’m not going to spend the rest of my life here.” It wasn’t a matter of sitting, hugging and drinking whiskey, as some believe.
You say that you’re part of the Bolivarian project. The FARC too. What differentiates you?
My project does not provide for the combination of all forms of struggle.
Some believe that you have not been doing this out of pure philanthropy, but with a view to your political future, including a future presidential candidacy.
Far from it. I don’t have such aspirations. Serpa invited me to run in [the Department of] Santander in the campaign season but I wasn’t going to risk my credibility by campaigning and working for a humanitarian accord at the same time. He’s probably furious with me. I made an agreement and I supported Lucho Garzíon and he didn’t give me the time of day. I’m not a carpetbagger. I’m not betting on a nomination.
Are you going to retire from Congress?
I’m going to ask for 15 days to rest and think. I believe I’m the person who can continue talking with Cristina Kirchner, with President Correa and with others to organize a regional commission and create humanitarian pressure for peace in Colombia.
Accompanied by liberalism?
It’s said that I acted in a personal capacity and that that did not commit the Party. But they do not disparage my work because it has been successful toward peace.
Do you have regrets?
Here everyone “shows their colors,” everything that’s hidden. One woman sat down alone to speak with the FARC who didn’t know her. I’m not sorry about anything and I’m not going to leave the process. I’ve done things that are difficult for politicians and parties, in whom I no longer believe. It pains me that it is said that some 80-plus parliamentarians are under investigation for paramilitary political connections.