Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Colombia News Bulletin: FARC Frees Hostages; Conference on Afro-Colombians at Howard

Farc frees Colombia hostages

Those released include Luis Eladio Perez, a former Colombian senator

Four hostages held by the Colombian Farc rebel group for more than six years have been freed, the International Red Cross organisation says.

The four were handed over to a delegation of Red Cross and Venezuelan officials at a location in the Colombian jungle at about midday local time (1700 GMT), a spokeswoman said.

Two helicopters had earlier been sent from Venezeula to collect the captives, former Colombian lawmakers Gloria Polanco, Orlando Beltran, Luis Eladio Perez and Jorge Gechem.

Last month, the Farc also released two female hostages following a deal brokered by Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president.

Barbara Hintermann, the Red Cross director for Colombia, said the helicopters are now en route to the border town of Santo Domingo before heading to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, for the hostages to be reunited with their families.

"It's a very important day for the Colombian people and for these four freed people," she told journalists in the Colombian city of Bogota.

Chavez also spoke with the hostages by phone following their release, Jesse Chacon, a senior aide to the Venezuelan president told AP.

"We want the relatives to know they are in our hands and safe and sound," Chacon said.

Red Cross spokesman Yves Heller said the two doctors on board the helicopters determined that the hostages were in good enough medical condition to travel, although more medical tests would be performed on them once they arrived in Venezuela.

Hostages' health

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) had offered on February 2 to hand over to the Venezuelan president three of the hostages.

Gechem was later added to the list on health grounds, as he is reportedly suffering from heart, back and ulcer problems.

The former state senator was kidnapped six years ago after Farc fighters hijacked a commercial aircraft he was travelling on.

His fellow former hostage, Polanco, was kidnapped with two of her two sons, who were later released. Her husband, a prominent politician, was later killed by the Farc.

Her other son Daniel, who was 11-years-old when his mother was seized, told journalists in Caracas on Wednesday that the kidnapping "surely tears out one's insides''.

Remaining captives

The hostages are part of a group of about 40 foreign captives whom the Farc want to swap in exchange for 500 of their fighters being held in Colombian prisons.

Two Colombian legislators, Consuelo Gonzalez and Clara Rojas, were released last month after an agreement brokered by Chavez.

Those still being held include three US Pentagon contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian former politician.

Last week rallies were held in France and Colombia to protest against her continued detention.

Around 700 Colombian hostages, many of them civilians, are also reportedly being held by the group.

Chavez's role

Al Jazeera's correspondent Lucia Newman said that the Farc had freed the hostages because, firstly, they wish to be seen as a legitimate fighting force.

Secondly, they want the Colombian government to demilitarise a large area of the country so that negotiations can be held over a prisoner exchange.

Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian president, has indicated a willingness to negotiate an exchange of prisoners but has ruled out demilitarisation of such a large and populated part of the country - suggesting a smaller, less inhabited zone instead.

Chavez has been involved in the hostage negotiations since last year, however an original deal to free the two women prisoners collapsed amid acrimony between Uribe and Chavez.

The Venezuelan president angered Colombia further when he said that Farc should not be labelled as a terrorist group but as a "belligerent force", with legitimate political aims.

The right wing’s agenda in Colombia

By Jesus “Chucho” Garcia

The Afro-Colombian movement has been one of the most important vanguard organizations of Latin America. Since the uprising of Benkos Bioho (17th century), a maroon of Wolof origin (present-day Senegal), through the struggle of Afro-Colombian miners in the Chocó until the contemporary struggle, Afro-Colombians have always maintained the high ethics of African ancestry characterized by a flood of dignity.

It was in the 1990s when an extraordinary alliance among academics, students and other social actors achieved recognition for Afro-Colombians in the Colombian National Constitution and from there was granted, through a transitory article, the Law of Black Colombian Communities, also known as the Law 70, approved in Congress in 1993.

That law, among other things,guaranteed the recognition to their lands--collectively ancestral and shared for the benefit of their communities (indeed, the senators of the center-right and Bolivarian left rejected a similar proposal that we Afro-Venezuelans made for Constitutional Reform on December 2nd, see and compare the two).

Upon the current president Alvaro Uribe’s arrival to power, what would be called the “Counter-Reforms of Uribe” began, which have affected all of the Colombian community and Afro-Colombians especially. By the blessing or curse of God, Afro-Colombians are located in the bio-geographic Pacific, considered, along with the Amazon, to be the greatest diversity reserve of Latin America and one of the main ones of the planet.

The increase of armed conflicts,specifically of paramilitaries and U.S. army intervention, as well as some errors made by guerrillas, has provoked a massive displacement towards cities such as Medellin, Cali and above all Bogot√°, not to mention Venezuela, where those from the Amazonas state have arrived and constituted a neighborhood called Africa.

After Sudan, Colombia is the country with more displaced persons in the world, of which 60% are Afro-Colombians, according to the organization AFRODES, which is led by activist Marino Cordoba.

Uribe’s order is to re-seize Afro-Colombian lands

In Washington D.C. during this last week of February, an Afro-Colombian conference will be taking place at Howard University, where the following afrodescendent governmental representatives will attend: the Minister of Culture, Paula Marcelo Moreno, the Vice-Minister of Work Andres Palacio, Oscar Gamboa of the Commission of Advancement for the Afro-Colombian Population, and the Representative of the Afro-Colombian Office in the present government, Pastor Murillo.

Added to those Afro-Uribean senators led by Edgar Eulises thereare Senators of the United States Congress that support the Free Trade Agreement such as Gregory Meeks, who supposedly has a business in United States andLatin American airports.

This activity has been preceded by others done in Colombia since Bush visited and met with Afro-Colombian leaders; later by the mission of Afro-North American ex-General Colin Powell accompanied by some intellectuals such as Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and even Bill Gates, among others; and recently by the visit of Condolleeza Rice to Cartagena de Indias.

Uribe is trying to apply the Bush model ofplacing the new Uncle Toms, or what they call here in the United States “Oreo cookies” (black on the outside and white on the inside) to say that there is “racial democracy” in Colombia.

The truth is that this group that is now parading about Washington is the group to remind of the funeral marches of the coffins of thousands of Afro-Colombians murdered by paramilitaries with the complicity of Uribe’s army and North American intervention.

They will cry out for the signing of the signing of the Free Trade Agreement between Colombia and the United States in order to openly and bold-facedly exploit the region of the bio-geographic Pacific.

We as Afro-descendent intellectuals and activists express our active support to displaced Afro-Colombians in Washington and we condemn this right-wing “oreoization” by the plot of the first-ever paramilitary in power: Alvaro Uribe Velez.

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