Mon, Jan 07, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Stone backs Chavez over hostage drama

THE OBSERVER , LONDON AND BOGOTA

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, right, and US film director Oliver Stone talk to the press at the Santo Domingo Air Base in Tachira State, Venezuela, on Dec. 28.

PHOTO: EPA

Oliver Stone, the maverick Hollywood director, has returned from the jungles of Colombia to launch a scathing attack on the US' "secret war" in the country and blame US President George W. Bush for the failure of an international mission to free hostages held by armed rebels.

The Oscar-winning maker of films including Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Wall Street gave the first full eyewitness account of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's effort to secure the release of captives from the rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Stone also spoke out in defense of Chavez, whom he called "an honest man, a strong man and a soldier," and condemned the US for treating Latin America like a backyard to "throw trash, piss, do whatever the hell they want."

FARC said last month that it was prepared to release into the hands of the left-wing Chavez two women politicians -- Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez -- held hostage for six years, as well as Rojas' four-year-old son, reportedly born of a relationship with a guerrilla fighter. Colombians hoped it might be a step toward peace in their decades-long civil war. If FARC was willing to go ahead with this gesture, many believed, it could pave the way for a broader agreement for the release of all 46 hostages, including French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three US defense contractors and dozens of local politicians and military and police officers.

RALLYING SUPPORT

Chavez sent helicopters to the city of Villavicencio on the edge of the Colombian jungle. He rallied support from Latin American governments which made up an international verification commission. An acquaintance of Chavez who worked with Stone on his film Comandante, about the Cuban President Fidel Castro, invited the director to witness the rescue for his next documentary, a study of the US relationship with Latin America.

At first Stone was told to remain in his hotel for his own safety in case he became a kidnapping target himself, but he soon ventured out and passed time in town talking to "coke dealers and murderers." His trip ended in frustration as he watched Chavez's negotiations unravel. "Chavez played a poker game where he was trying to really make this work and I think that he couldn't do it alone," said Stone from his home in California. "From where I was standing, he was beating the drum to rescue these hostages and to break the ice in the ongoing war between the state and the rebels. I thought that it was a significant first move and there was resentment towards him for this on the part of Colombia and the United States."

He says FARC had promised to provide coordinates for the location where the helicopters could go to pick up the two women and the child. Each day began with the hope that at last the hostages would be freed and for four days each day ended in discouragement for their families. Finally, on New Year's Eve, FARC announced it was "suspending" the handover. It was not possible, it said in a letter to Chavez, to continue because Colombian military movements were compromising the safety of the hostages and their captors.

VEHEMENT DENIAL

This was vehemently denied by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who is credited with improving law and order in recent years, but is also accused of close ties with right-wing paramilitary groups. He claimed that FARC was not in possession of the four-year-old boy, called Emmanuel, who had actually been living in a state-run orphanage under the name Juan David since 2005. On Friday the Colombian government said that DNA evidence proved this to be true and hours later FARC confirmed that it had placed the child in the care of "honorable people" while a humanitarian agreement for a hostage release was hammered out.

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