- Title: VARIOUS: Latin America Review Of The Year 2008 / Yearender Part 1
- Date: 18th December 2008
- Summary: BOGOTA, COLOMBIA (MARCH 15, 2008) (REUTERS) FRENCH PLANE ON TARMAC WAITING FOR WORD FROM FARC TO AID BETANCOURT
- Reuters ID: LVA3TWIDB0GIA5E8ACLI2W63U1EJ
- Duration: 00:00:06
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- Topics: General
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- Story Text: The first half of 2008 was dominated by a series of blows to Colombia's largest rebel movement, culminating in the daring rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors. But the news was punctuated by the threat of war among Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, Fidel Castro's historic resignation, spectacular volcano eruptions in Chile, a tragic plane accident in Honduras, a vote for independence in Bolivia and a fat man's 43rd birthday in Mexico.
Mother Nature let forth her own New Year's Day celebration on January 1 when Chile's Llaima volcano roared to life with a fiery display of lava, smoke and ash that sent nearby residents fleeing for shelter. Llaima, located some 700 kilometres (435 miles) south of Santiago, is one of the most active volcanoes in South America. Standing some 3,125 metres (10,253 feet) high, the volcano spewed pyroclastic rock 396 metres (1,300 feet) into the air for three days.
But Llaima's fury was soon forgotten when, on January 10, long-awaited word came from Venezuela that the administration of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had managed to secure the release of two high-profile FARC hostages - Clara Rojas, former campaign aide to Ingrid Betancourt, and Consuelo Gonzalez, a Colombian congresswoman. Escorted by a contingent of camouflage-clad rebels, Rojas and Gonzalez were handed over to a Venezuelan delegation at a secret jungle clearing near the Colombian/Venezuelan border. They greeted the group with hugs and smiles and bade a cordial farewell to their captors, who slipped back into the jungle.
The former hostages were then hustled onto a Red Cross helicopter and taken to Caracas where friends and family anxiously awaited their return.
Tears flowed freely as Gonzalez and Rojas stepped down from the aircraft and hugged loved ones they hadn't seen for the six and seven years, respectively, they'd been held in captivity. There were more hugs with President Hugo Chavez as they met him on the steps of the Miraflores Presidential Palace and expressed their gratitude.
The release was hailed among the international community as a political victory for Chavez, who Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had banned from hostage negotiations late in 2007. Despite the fallout with Uribe, Chavez had persisted and come close to winning the release in late December, but the attempt collapsed abruptly on New Year's Eve.
Rojas' and Gonzalez's release opened up a flood of speculation regarding the condition of the FARC most high-profile hostages, Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors, but also raised hopes for dozens of other captives languishing in secret camps.
As Rojas and Gonzalez settled back into the routine of daily life, attention turned to Chavez's ally and mentor, 81-year-old Fidel Castro, ailing since emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. On January 16, the Cuban government released rare video of a frail, but cheerful Castro as he met with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. At the time, Castro was still officially Cuba's President even though he had temporarily handed over power to his brother Raul before the surgery. The two leaders shared an emotional hug in what would likely be Castro's last appearance as President.
Meanwhile, back in Lula's country, the pulsing rhythm of samba drums grew ever louder as Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro geared up for Carnival. On the final night, the world's largest party exploded as the raucous and risque filled the Rio streets in the glittering extravaganza of the parade of samba schools. Beija Flor electrified the crowds and defended last year's championship win with a theme that focused on the founding of Macap, the capital of the Amazon state of Amapa.
Bolivians had little to celebrate, however. In mid-February - for the second year in a row - heavy rains drenched Trinidad, the capital of the Beni province, destroying thousands of homes. The region also took a severe hit in livestock and agriculture as fields lay ruined under water. The flooding lasted for several weeks forcing thousands into shelters.
Today, almost ten months later, many have left the area, which is now suffering from a drought.
Back in Cuba, February 19 marked an historic day. Cuban's woke up to the news that Fidel Castro, Cuba's leader for 49 years, had officially resigned. Castro made the announcement overnight in a written statement on the web site of the state newspaper "Granma". Despite the significance of the moment, many Cubans took it in stride, concerned for Castro's health and comforted by the leadership of his brother Raul.
Still, a heavy emptiness descended upon Fidel's chair as the National Assembly convened on February 24 to choose a new leader. There was little suspense and little surprise as Raul Castro was voted into office, but speculation was rampant in the U.S. as analysts and experts wondered if Raul's administration would upend long-standing policy.
The closing days of February brought another round of good news on the hostage front as the FARC released four more captives to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Gloria Polanco, Orlando Beltran, Luis Eladio Perez and Jorge Gechem - all former politicians held for over six years - stepped off the plane and into the arms of friends and family. The deal raised hope once again for the imminent release of Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors, the FARC's highest-profile hostages.
But barley a week later, the goodwill brought about by the liberation abruptly disappeared as Colombia launched an attack on Ecuadorean soil that would bring the region perilously close to all-out war. On March 1, Colombian forces bombed a FARC rebel camp near the border, but in Ecuador. The attack killed infamous FARC commander Raul Reyes, as well as several other guerrilleros, but a furious Rafael Correa swiftly cut off diplomatic ties with Colombia and ordered troops to the border.
"We had to break relations not with a brotherly nation like our Colombia - no, these relations are eternal - but with a government, with a government that does not deserve any credibility and that has lied and lied and lied over and over again and that wants war, not peace," said Correa, grim-faced and irate, during a trip to Brazil days later.
Other Latin American countries widely condemned Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for the attack, but Uribe defended the move, saying Colombia had found a laptop in the attack that provided files proving Hugo Chavez's links to the FARC.
Chavez though, came out swinging.
"We do not want war, but we are not going to permit the North American empire and its puppy President Uribe and the Colombian oligarchy to divide us, to come here and make us weak - we are not going to permit it," he said on national television, as he ordered battalions and fighter jets to Venezuela's border with Colombia.
Tension remained agonizingly high for several days as the world watched the situation unfold, waiting for the smallest move that could spark a full-fledged war among the nations.
But with a flurry of diplomatic activity and a handshake in the Dominican Republic, the crisis was over. On March 7, Latin American leaders held a summit in Santo Domingo, where Uribe apologized to Correa and guaranteed Colombia would not make similar raids if they cooperated in the fight against the FARC. Amid loud applause, Uribe and an unsmiling Correa shook hands. Uribe also made up with Chavez, under the watchful eye of Dominican President Leonel Fernandez.
As the crisis with Ecuador and Venezuela subsided, Colombia found itself facing a new emergency as strong rumors fueled growing speculation that hostage Ingrid Betancourt was teetering close to death. The last video of Betancourt had appeared in October, 2007 showing her pale and gaunt deep in the Colombian jungle. Hostages previously released earlier in 2008 reported that Betancourt was seriously ill and had been chained up after attempting to escape. So strong were the rumors, that French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent a medical mission to Colombian to make contact with the rebels to treat Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen. The mission failed however, as the French planes sat idle at a Bogota air base, hearing nothing from the FARC.
While chaos and concern raged in the northern part of South America, March saw another crisis brewing in the southern part. In Argentina, angry farmers launched a string of protests against the administration of President Cristina Fernandez over her support of a tax hike on soy exports. The protests led to a paralyzing three-month-long agriculture strike that eventually played a big role in the eventual defeat of the tax.
April passed relatively calmly for the region, but May brought Bolivia to the forefront with residents of Santa Cruz going to the polls to vote overwhelmingly in favour of autonomy, a definitive - and expected - rejection of Bolivian President Evo Morales' policies. In downtown Santa Cruz, supporters and opponents fought with sticks and stones, and on the outskirts, Morales backers were accused of attacking polling stations. Authorities reported that at least 18 people were injured and one person died in the clashes. The ballot was the first of four referendums on greater autonomy that followed later in the year.
Meanwhile, Chileans witnessed the spectacular and terrifying eruption of the Chaiten volcano. On May 2, for the first time in thousands of years, Chaiten spewed ash, gas and molten rock high into the air, sending a dramatic plume of smoke looming over nearby towns. For the next week, Chaiten - located some 1,223 kilometres (760 miles) south of Santiago - groaned, rumbled and shuddered raising concerns among authorities as lightning bolts pierced the clouds of hot ash hovering ominously above its crater.
Back in Colombia, the FARC - in a state of upheaval after the hostage releases and death of Raul Reyes - announced its founder and top commander had died of a heart attack in March. Marulanda organized the FARC as a communist force in 1964 and provided the inspiration and leadership as the group evolved from a ragtag army into Latin America's largest and oldest-surviving insurgency.
May ended on a tragic note as a Salvadoran passenger jet skidded off a rain-soaked runway landing in Honduras, killing five and injuring 38.
Passengers with blood streaming from their faces stumbled out of the plane, over the broken wings as onlookers rushed to pull survivors from the smoking debris. Authorities noted that the airport at Tegucigalpa has a reputation as one of the most treacherous in Latin America due to a difficult approach.
On a lighter note, Mexico's Manuel Uribe, once the world's fattest man, was all smiles as he celebrated his 43rd birthday with a fruit cake and his girlfriend. Uribe, who once weighed as much as a small truck at more than half a tonne, has been dieting for over a year while confined to a reinforced bed that he has not left fo the past six years because he is so heavy. He hopes to mark next year's birthday by walking for the first time in years.
Meanwhile in Cuba, Fidel Castro made his first appearance on Cuban television since resigning as President. Looking thin, but animated, he was shown on Cuban TV with his brother, President Raul Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Those were the last video images of Castro to appear in 2008.
Several weeks of regional calm ended suddenly on July 2 when Colombia made a stunning, and entirely unexpected, announcement - an army-led mission had rescued Ingrid Betancourt, three American defense contractors and eleven others from FARC captivity. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said all of the former captives were in reasonable good health despite having been held in harsh conditions.
The rescue was carried out in the southern jungle province of Guaviare, Santos said. Soldiers posed as members of a fictitious non-government organization that were supposed to fly the hostages by helicopter to a camp to meet with rebel leader Alfonso Cano.
Shaky army video showed the hostages - including Betancourt - handcuffed as they waited to climb aboard the plane. The camera continued filming as the hostages received the news, once in the air, that they were free. The group exploded with joyous disbelief, tears streaming down their faces, hugs and smiles all around. Betancourt later said the helicopter almost crashed "because we wall started clapping and screaming and jumping up and down."
The world paid rapt attention to the first images of Betancourt descending from the plane and into the arms of her mother Yolanda Pulecio, who had fought tirelessly for her daughter's release for six and a half years.
Meanwhile, the three Americans looked thin but thrilled as they came off the plane. All three were defense contractors with Northrop Grumman who were captured in 2003 after their aircraft crashed in the jungle while on a counternarcotics operation. Within hours they were on flights back to the United States.
At the same time, Betancourt's children, 19-year-old Lorenzo and 22-year-old Melanie, were en route to Colombia from their home in France.
When they arrived, Betancourt could not wait for them to exit the plane. She bolted up the steps to smother them in kisses inside.
She later said that her captivity in secret camps had driven her to think of suicide. She was punished for several escape attempts, chained at the neck to a tree or made to walk barefoot. Days later she was on her way back to France, but returned to Latin America in December to meet with presidents in every major country as part of a campaign to raise awareness for hundreds of others who remain in FARC captivity.
Colombians ended July with a resounding rejection of the FARC when hundreds of thousands took to streets throughout the nation, shouting, weeping and waving flags to call for an end to the kidnappings. Related demonstrations were held in cities around the world, including Paris where Betancourt addressed an emotional crowd.
Over the last 12 years, some 23,854 people have been taken hostage in Colombia and hundreds remain in captivity.
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