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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Time to take their leave

John C. Bersia The Orlando Sentinel

Even in retirement, former Cuban President Fidel Castro apparently cannot stand for anyone else to hold the limelight. Thus, he has attempted to steal a bit of it from Colombian President Alvaro Uribe by barging into the discussion about the dramatic rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others last week from the clutches of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Castro’s input?

He strongly criticized the “cruel methods of kidnapping and holding prisoners in the jungle” and urged that remaining FARC captives be unconditionally freed. Well, I have to agree with him on that point, which is similar to what his advisee Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said earlier in the summer. Chavez has assisted in the release of other FARC hostages. Further, I hope that the FARC, which has always drawn inspiration from Castro’s revolution in Cuba, will listen.

But the rest of Castro’s comments underscored that his troublesome ways have not diminished. He advised the rebel movement not to give up its weapons, indicating that yielding has made it extremely difficult for other groups in the past half-century to “survive to see the peace.”

Instead, Castro should be instructing the FARC to read the writing on the wall. The time for their movement has come and gone. People in Colombia are sick of the group’s legacy of death, destruction, intimidation, kidnapping, narco-trafficking and terrorism. Just in the past year, FARC bombings and other deadly behavior killed dozens of people and injured scores.

The evidence of widespread disgust is clear in the popular support for Uribe, who commanded an impressive approval rating of 73 percent before the rescue. Now, his approval rating stands at 91 percent, and pressure is increasing to hold a referendum that would allow him to run for a third term.

Betancourt, who was one of Uribe’s rivals in 2002, has added to the excitement by declaring that she likes the idea of a third term for the president. As for her former captors, she said, “The re-election (of Uribe in 2006) changed the rules of the game for the FARC. The FARC had gotten used to waiting for changes in government to gain new momentum,” but Uribe’s re-election has produced a vastly different environment.

Will the FARC ever recover from this setback?

I am sure that Castro would say yes. For my part, I side with those who argue that it is unlikely. The FARC is in disarray, having suffered top leadership losses recently and engaging in a desperate campaign to regroup. Also, let us give the government of Colombia credit for increasing its counterterrorism efforts and hounding the FARC at all levels.

And Castro?

Quite frankly, I am also sick of hearing about and from him. Castro’s time also has come and gone – and it lasted far too long. He should leave Colombian politics and the resolution of the FARC issue to the country’s people. They are certainly capable of handling this matter without him.

Indeed, my hope is that the freeing of Betancourt and the other hostages will prove a mortal blow to the FARC. That development would be historic, given the group’s status as Latin America’s oldest, biggest and best-outfitted Marxist insurgency. And it just might signal the arrival of a new era in which the prospect of peace can move – as did the hostages’ desire for freedom – from dreams to reality.