Armed revolution in Latin America is over, says Chavez

The armed revolutionary has no place in modern Latin America, the Venezuelan President has declared. Catching his critics off guard, Hugo Chavez called on the Marxist rebel army in neighbouring Colombia to lay down its arms and release its hostages, declaring that guerrilla armies are now "out of place".

Adopting the mantle of international statesman, the Venezuelan President appeared to be stepping forward finally to turn a page of history for a continent that for decades has been blighted by eruptions of insurgent violence, not just in Colombia but also Nicaragua and El Salvador. As most of those conflicts have come to an end, Colombia has been alone in failing to end its own internal strife.

"At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place," Mr Chavez said. "The guerrilla war is history," he asserted in his weekly television address, prompting expressions of both surprise and welcome among government leaders in Colombia. They have recently accused Venezuela of running a clandestine campaign of support for the Marxist rebels.

Mr Chavez is no stranger to the revolutionary mantle. In 1992 his Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement – inspired by the 19th century independence guerrilla Simon Bolivar – made a doomed attempt to overthrow the government. Even now, having made the transition from rebel to politician, Mr Chavez is still the staunchest of supporters of the world's most famous revolutionary, Fidel Castro. Whether his latest comments represent a profound change of heart or not, they may help open a path to long-term peace in Colombia after 40 years of bloodshed.

It is a time of deepening difficulties for Farc, the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which recently confirmed that its founder and top commander, Manuel Marulanda, also known as "Sureshot", had died of a heart attack at a jungle base in March. It has lost several other members of its top leadership in recent months.

"I think the time has come for the Farc to free everyone they have in the mountains. It would be a great, humanitarian gesture in exchange for nothing. That is what I propose to the new [Farc] leader."

Since the death of Mr Marulanda, who instigated his Marxist-inspired struggle in Colombia with a group of armed peasants in 1964, the group has been led by Alfonso Cano, a man described as being more bookish and potentially more moderate than the man he replaced.

His statement on Sunday marked the first time that the Venezuelan leader had addressed Mr Cano directly. "I say to Cano, let's go. Release those people," Mr Chavez said unambiguously.

Farc is believed to be holding as many as 750 hostages in remote jungle areas of Colombia. For much of its existence, it has relied on taking citizens captive in the hope of extracting large sums in ransom – a practice that became known as "miracle fishing". For years, Colombians lived in terror of Farc roadblocks when any of them could have found themselves snatched from their cars. A few dozen of those still in captivity are considered high-profile hostages. They include three military contractors from the United States and the former presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt. Believed to be in poor health, Ms Betancourt holds joint French-Colombian citizenship. Her plight has been the subject of persistent lobbying by the French government for her release.

Since coming to office in 2002, Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe has waged a determined effort to restore order to the country and end civil war. Over four decades, tens of thousands of lives have been lost as Farc battled it out against right-wing paramilitary groups that sprung up to combat its grip on the country as well as government forces.

Last year, he invited Mr Chavez to help mediate with the group for the release of its hostages but withdrew that invitation in November, claiming that the Venezuelan leader was not sticking to his side of the bargain. The breach triggered a deep chill in relations between the two leaders as Mr Chavez loosed a string of derogative remarks about Mr Uribe's competence. Tensions spiked further when a computer belonging to Farc's second-in-command was found, which Colombia said showed Mr Chavez had funnelled $300m (£152m) to the group.

There was no concealing the surprise in Bogota at the switch Mr Chavez seems to be making. "He was their defender and ally and so it's surprising that he has acted like this," said Carlos Holguin, Colombia's Interior Minister. "I hope Farc hears him – that all of Latin America hears him."

Indeed, while Colombia may retain some scepticism about Mr Chavez's motives, its government also knows that Farc has a long history of ignoring all outside appeals for an end to its struggle. However, Mr Chavez, who has been leading his own "socialist revolution" in Venezuela, may be the one leader able to bring influence on them.

In his statement, Mr Chavez offered a reason of his own to bring Farc's campaign to an end, pointing to the US. "You in the Farc should know something," he offered. "You have become an excuse for the empire to threaten all of us." He often uses the term "empire" to refer to the United States. Washington has made no secret of its desire to isolate Mr Chavez from other governments in Latin America.

A revolutionary region

*Caracas' most famous son, Simon Bolivar, led the charge in Hispanic America's struggle for independence. He is remembered across Central and South America as El Libertador after defeating the Spanish colonialists, and establishing the Gran Colombia federation in 1821 that would bring independence to Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama.

*Mexico's revolution began with a letter. Thrown in jail in 1910 for declaring his intention to run against the dictator of 30 years Porfirio Diaz, Francisco Madero issued a note from his cell calling for revolt. A bloody decade of civil war ensued.

*Guatemala's 'October Revolutionaries' – a group of dissident military officers, students and liberals – struck in 1944, overthrowing the military junta that had ousted dictator Jorge Ubico. Guatemala was to experience a decade of change known as the "Ten Years of Spring".

*Aided by Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Fidel Castro landed in eastern Cuba in 1956 and over the next two and a half years rolled his '26th July Movement' across the country and into Havana, toppling the US-backed Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

*Nicaragua's Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979. They lost elections in 1990, but returned to power in 2006 with the former guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega once more at the helm.

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