Colombian hostage mission hits close to home

Hollywood, Fla. – As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez began an elaborate operation to pick up three high-profile hostages from rebel-held areas in Colombia on Friday afternoon, Edgar Montanez couldn’t help but think of what happened 14 years ago.

He remembered his anguish when members of the same leftist group kidnapped and killed his brother, Juan, while on assignment for Colombia’s national police force.

“Regardless of who’s doing the helping, what’s important is that these people are liberated,” said Montanez, of Sunrise.

Montanez joined thousands of South Florida expatriates from both countries who waited this week to see if the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, release former Congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas and her 3-year-old son, Emmanuel, a child reportedly fathered by a rebel captor.

Revolutionary forces kidnapped Rojas and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, in 2002.

The operation was not expected to be completed until today at the earliest.

The hostages’ likely release has given Montanez and others hope that the rebels also will free more captives, including three American defense contractors. But he is wary of the operation’s secrecy and the prolonged attention it has given the rebels and Chavez.

“There’s fear that this might destabilize democracy in all of [Colombia],” said Montanez, 50. “It could all go bad. It could have long-term repercussions. Who knows.”

Venezuelans living in South Florida, known for their strident opposition to Chavez, characterized the release as a political “circus.”

Rafael Adrianza, director of the political group United for Venezuela and America, accused Chavez of using the mission to try to draw attention away from embarrassing reports in recent months, such as his failure to secure a wide array of constitutional amendments.

He slammed the idea that Chavez should win political points for his involvement.

“If Chavez was humanitarian, if the FARC was humanitarian, they would have put the kidnapping victims on a bus and sent them to any Colombian city, without so much circus and show and television and press,” said Adrianza, of Plantation.

Others felt the mission would only help boost Chavez’s socialist influence around the region. Chavez in the past has accused Colombian President Alvaro Uribe of caving to pressure from Washington, and on Friday referred to the U.S. government as “imperialist,” a view shared by Colombia’s leftist rebels.

“It’s a well-organized and well-executed show,” said Pedro Mena, a Venezuelan from Weston.

The hostage operation is the latest development in the violent conflict between the rebels and Colombia’s U.S.-aligned government, which have been at war for five decades.

Throughout Friday afternoon, South Florida Colombians continued to monitor news reports of the mission. Others, with personal knowledge of abductions, focused their attention on the human toll of the kidnappings, rather than the political fallout of the release.

“It’s another step toward a humanitarian reconciliation,” said Diego Fonseca, 21, whose parents rebels threatened but did not kidnap in 2000.

Jeanethe Jimenez, who rebels twice kidnapped in Colombia before she moved to Miami, said her own experience had taught her that released victims often live with the pain of their ordeal long after they win their freedom.

In her own case, Jimenez said the first few days after her kidnappings — both lasted four months — were harder to bear than many of the days spent in captivity. She lost her appetite, had trouble sleeping and lost confidence.

“You continue to live, but you feel powerless,” said Jimenez, 47, who designs jewelry. “You start to blame yourself. It’s a kind of self-destruction. It’s a mark on your soul and on your heart.”

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