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Future of Colombia rebels up in air under Cano

The bearded Marxist intellectual who has just taken command of Latin America's last major guerrilla army has been put on the spot by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is calling on him to abandon armed struggle.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bearded Marxist intellectual who has just taken command of Latin America's last major guerrilla army has been put on the spot by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is calling on him to abandon armed struggle.

Alfonso Cano and his lieutenants, the subjects of an intense manhunt by Colombia's U.S.-supported military, are believed to be isolated in jungle and mountain hideaways. Their rebels are hunkered down as well, holding scores of hostages as human shields against increasingly successful attacks.

There was no question of their allegiance to the legendary Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, a septuagenarian who died of a heart attack in late March. But it is unclear how far other rebel commanders will follow Cano, a bespectacled former anthropology student and Communist Youth activist who took over last month.

Chavez, the main foreign backer of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, urged Cano and his fighters during his weekly television and radio program Sunday to free all their hostages unconditionally and give up their arms.

Only five months ago, Chavez called on the world to recognize the FARC as a legitimate army. Now he calls their struggle "history."

"At this point in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place," he said.

Will FARC call it quits?
The guerrillas haven't inflicted serious casualties since 2006, the government claims rebel numbers are dwindling and Chavez does have a point: Leftists elsewhere in Latin America have recently seen more success at the ballot box than they ever achieved through armed struggle.

But it's not at all clear whether Cano has inclination — or even the ability — to persuade his rebels to call it quits, especially given Colombia's history of death squad violence against rebels who opt for the ballot box. It also remains unclear whether Chavez will use his ample leverage to pressure the rebels to take his advice.

What is clear is that both Cano and Chavez are under pressure as never before.

With U.S. advisers and technology giving Colombia better human and eavesdropping intelligence than ever, Colombia has pummeled the FARC insurgency.

For the first time in the 44-year war, a member of the FARC's ruling seven-man secretariat was killed in action. Foreign minister Raul Reyes died in a March 1 cross-border raid into Ecuador and rebel finance chief Ivan Rios was slain a week later by a ransom-seeking bodyguard.

And the intelligence bonanza Colombia scored in the Reyes raid — laptops containing more than 11,000 electronic documents — have since made a strong case to the world that Chavez has tried to arm and finance the rebels.

Now Chavez has pivoted again.

"Enough of all this war. The time has come to sit down and talk peace," he said. "Cano, I'm at your disposal to look for ways to free the prisoners you have there in the mountains."

Ample leverage
Chavez has ample leverage. He could sever ties and expel the FARC from camps on Venezuelan soil, kicking out any secretariat members living semi-permanently in Venezuela. He could offer safe haven to rebels who, without their hostages, fear obliteration by the Colombian military.

Without the clear support of Chavez, Venezuela would become less inviting as a conduit for rebel cocaine exports and weapons imports, enabling Colombia to tighten the noose on the FARC.

Already, Colombian officials say the rebels are down to about 9,000 fighters, half their strength of a decade ago, though no one knows how accurate that assessment is. Colombia also says the rebels are having trouble paying the peasants who grow the coca that finances their struggle.

The rebels released six hostages in January and February, but have ruled out releasing any more — including three U.S. military contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt — unless President Alvaro Uribe demilitarizes a New York City-sized swath of southwestern Colombia.

They didn't respond to Uribe's recent offer of "conditional liberty" and free passage to a country "such as France" for any rebel who surrenders with hostages in tow.

And they seemed as intransigent as ever in a communique published Sunday before Chavez's speech, saying their "strategic objective is taking power for the people."

Cano participated in failed peace talks in the 1990 and again in 1999-2002, where he drove a hard line against the government. Uribe said in a radio interview last week that during the 2002 talks, "Cano was as much of an obstacle as Reyes."

But what's on the rebel leader's mind today is simply unknown. He hasn't been heard from since he took over, and a pair of government-authorized mediators seeking him out has yet to talk to him.

A U.S. military analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, told The Associated Press on Monday that Cano will likely make a military move to show that the FARC still has some fight left in it.

And mediator Carlos Lozano, who edits the Communist Party weekly Voz, says it's tough to see Cano giving up the fight.

"Everyone in the FARC is a hardliner, including Cano," he told AP. "They are all inflexible."