Apparently Bernard Kouchner came to Venezuela and Colombia on the eve of the 6th year anniversary of Ingrid Betancourt capture by the FARC. Dispatched by Sarkozy who has made Ingrid's cause a crusade of sorts for him, Kouchner, whose career makes him more at ease in the turbulent waters of Kosovo or Africa, came to a continent with which he is not familiar with. I suspect that his bitter moment in Colombia is not really his fault: there is no such a thing as a foreign minister competent on every Podunk of the world. But there is a staff, and a good staff knows how to prepare a minister to speak for the interests of his or her country anywhere. Apparently the French staff for Latin America have proved themselves once again to be a bunch of arrogant incompetent nincompoops who placed their boss in a very difficult situation. And all probably to try to score some brown points with Sarkozy at the expense of the restless natives that live in Colombia.
Kouchner came first to Caracas. In later press releases we learn that part of the objective was to try to smooth over the tensions between Caracas and Bogota. That the French think they can pull that one already speaks volumes on how little they understand what is going on in this corner of the world. The real reason was of course to test Chavez on how much access he really had to the FARC and how soon and what did he need to get Ingrid free. France could not care less whether Colombia and Venezuela are at each others throat as long as Ingrid is released and Total gets oil concessions.
In a way, so far so good, Kouchner was following orders from his boss. He managed to be relatively discrete in Caracas, giving as little exposure as possible to Chavez whose image is hitting rock bottom in European serious political circles. But still, Chavez is needed as a possible catalyst for Ingrid release since he seems willing to pay the FARC for the trophy as long as he is the one who brings her to freedom. We already saw his modus operandi a few weeks ago. Thus, no matter how unpalatable Chavez is Kouchner gave him the big hug and big smile. After all, Kouchner has kissed much worse toads than Chavez during all the humanitarian missions he did in his life.
Thus Kouchner arrived the next day in Bogota. Apparently there was a meeting between both chanceries and Uribe was not schedule to appear at the working meeting. It seems that when he saw that the agenda proposed by the French was shown to him he decided to attend. See, the French wanted to bring Chavez back as a mediator. When the subject was broached by the French delegation Uribe dryly replied that relations with Venezuela were a state matter of utter importance and that Uribe would not discuss that with anyone. Period. Apparently Kouchner was shocked and looked at his staff in either disbelief or surprise as the French minister was not expecting that at all. Whatever was discussed after that was probably a waste of time.
Now, there is so much wrong in this whole thing that one is at a loss as to where start from. Let's first dispatch Chavez role in the whole business. If it remains true that Chavez is still a player and probably someone that will need to be at the table when the FARC sits down, it was not for the French to go to Bogota and bluntly force that on Uribe. Not only it is rude but would totally be counter productive, as we effectively saw. Can you imagine Uribe's foreign minister go to the Elysee Palace and bluntly tell Sarkozy that Italy should be the mediator in the Corsican problem?
Now let's discuss the incompetence and poor preparation of the French staff that came along with Kouchner. Under which stone have they been hiding these last few weeks? Are they not aware that Chavez almost went to active conflict with Colombia a few weeks ago? Don't they know that the border is partially closed? Did someone tell them about the FARC, and Chavez, rejection inside Colombia? Have they read the insults that Chavez has hurled regularly at Uribe? Don't they realize that if Chavez is big with the FARC he is far from controlling them as the Emmanuel episode illustrated so well? It strains the imagination to think that they wanted to have Chavez back inside the hostage liberation process just like that, and that Uribe would go along as if nothing ever happened. I had sensed that starting with Chirac French foreign policy had more misses than hits and now I can see clearly why: they do not bother inquiring in deep on the countries they deal with, being French requirement enough on a visiting carton.
And while Kouchner was sweating it in cool Bogota what did his boss do? He received the relatives of Ingrid at the Elysee, with his new wife, top model cum singer cum woman of the world at his side. Carla Bruni has declared by the way that she did not know what she would do as the new French First Lady (with the arrogance of someone who was elected to that job?) but that she would do it very seriously. So that is what French foreign policy is all about since Sarkozy is president: glamorous hostages, high profile rescue missions, Elysee receptions, Euro Disney and anything for a laugh.
--- --- ---
Since there have been so many articles on this matter, with so much additional information, I am grouping references in a separate section from the article, leaving in the text above only the to the point references. That way the story is shorter to read and those who seek more juicy details can read below.
The meeting between Uribe and Kouchner was filtered to El Tiempo, perhaps the most important paper of Colombia and the most reliable source on such things. El Tiempo reports that in fact the French proposal bothered Colombia at many levels.
The French proposed to expand the mediation role with the FARC that was given to France, Switzerland and Spain to Cuba, Brazil and Venezuela as "group of friends". Uribe not only dismissed Venezuela but said that Brazil and Cuba were welcome to help but would not be mediators. What the French seem also to have forgotten to check in their homework is that in 2003 it was president Lula freshly elected president who organized a "grupo de amigos" to help ease tensions in Venezuela during the oil strike. That "group of friends of Venezuela" in collusion with the Carter Center was what allowed Chavez to gain enough time to restore his power and transform himself in the thug regime he presides over today. The French might be ignorant of that but the Colombians certainly have not forgotten. Besides it was a good way to let Lula know that it is about time he chooses real democracy and stops cuddling dictators and wanna-be ones, just when Raul Castro is making sweet eyes towards Lula. Then again it has always been a Brazilian strategy to weaken as much as they can any Latin American country and Lula is no exception. The "butt off" to Lula by Uribe, in spite of their alleged friendly relationship, was a clear message to Brasilia. After all, Bogota is the farthest capital from Brasilia and is not about to suffer anything from Planalto.
El Tiempo also tells us that the French wanted to bring Chavez back because that would be a success for Sarkozy whose fortunes are sagging because of Sarkozy dispersion and personal problems (polls are increasingly predicting a strong defeat for Sarkozy allies in the upcoming local elections). As usual, the French do not care about the natives and Colombia is not going to pay for the love problems of Sarkozy. El Tiempo, though, notes some of Kouchner's words that might reveal that he felt ill served by his staff and that in fact he might understand much better the situation of Uribe than his boss or his staff. He said that "France is in no position to demand anything from anyone" (I have not found these words in the French press so far so I translate from Spanish what was probably already translated from French).
This personal take of Kouchner on the situation is taken up in Le Monde which today writes that there was a private meeting between Kouchner and Uribe after the initial meeting reported by El Tiempo. That extra meeting was requested by Kouchner. Le Monde writes: "The minister seemed, on this matter, more inclined to give credit to Bogota than some French diplomats present during this trip." That is right, Le Monde itself implies that the gut feelings of Kouchner are closer to reality than the lame career bureaucrats of the Quai D'Orsay. Mr. Kouchner might want to renew his staff, probably inherited from Chirac's time.
To conclude this post I would like to mention another very interesting article by Jacques Thomet who used to be AFP director and at some point in charge of the Bogota office. The article is reprinted in a relatively conservative page, Le Journal Chretien. It is particularly notable because it is a strong critic to Sarkozy from a group of people that would be expected to be strong supporters. Goes on to tell how fast Sarkozy is falling. I will just translate some highlights:
It is clear that the Betencourt affair is Franco-French. It has only a distant relation with Colombia.[...] Nothing that justifies supporting the propaganda of a little South American operatta duce.
The blackmail of the "French doctor" Kouchner, little office messenger of chavez, irks Colombia.
To demand that Colombian security forces do not jeopardize the lives of the hostages is equivalent to saying: once people have been kidnapped, the guerrilla controls the situation, they are not to be sought of, authorities must wait for "instructions" to negotiate under terror.
Ingrid Betancourt will soon be freed to help: *The FARC who thank to Paris intervention will lose their terrorist qualification and thus will open offices everywhere, including the UN *Hugo chavez to recover international support after the liberation, to compensate his total discredit in Venezuela * Nicolas Sarkozy to climb up in polls thanks to this "exploit" of recovering Ingrid. [Blogger's note: I did not think of that but it seems on the dot, the failure of Kouchner, the sagging of Chaevz and Sarkozy close to local elections both might mean Ingrid freed before the French March elections!!!!]
The other 800 hostages can wait for ten years or more [...] Neither France or Caracas will show any interest. [Note: France and Caracas, not France and Venezuela, a nice way to show that Venezuela's foreign policy does not exist, it is now Chavez fancy. this blogger vision is now becoming common knowledge!]