Governor says negotiations with Colombian rebels will move forward after his meeting with Venezuelan president

Kate Nash | The New Mexican

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — He traveled 2,943 miles, slept little and had to wait hours after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez bumped his appointment.

Still, Gov. Bill Richardson heads back to New Mexico today with the eight words he wanted to hear.

“President Chávez has agreed to try and help,” the governor told a mob of reporters outside the Venezuelan presidential palace.

The words came after an hour-and-20 minute meeting with Chávez late Saturday about his effort to free three U.S. citizens being held hostage in Colombia.

They also give Richardson the go-ahead to keep working to get the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to give up the men, held since 2003.

“He’s accepted my role as somebody that’s an intermediary,” Richardson said about Chávez in an interview after the meeting.

The globe-trotting governor said last month that he had made inroads with another key player in the situation, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Chávez, however, is seen as a central figure, someone to whom FARC in recent months has released hostages.

Now, Richardson said he’s ready to move forward with the negotiation process. “I’m going to try and engage the best I can to secure the release of these hostages to promote the humanitarian accord,” he said.

The governor’s next efforts are undefined, but Richardson indicated he would be in contact with the parties by telephone in the days ahead.

“The next step is going to be to engage in some shuttle diplomacy in the days ahead and the weeks ahead,” he said. He has no immediate travel plans and neither does Chávez, Richardson said.

Chávez didn’t address members of the media after the meeting.

The meeting, the highlight of Richardson’s trip, was seven hours behind schedule, forcing a throng of media to wait in a swanky media room inside the lush complex of the Venezuelan presidential palace, known as Miraflores. Some watched pre-recorded speeches by Chávez.

Others smoked and waited outside in the 70-degree weather while attentive waiters served small sandwiches, fresh squeezed juices and handmade pastries.

That meeting, inside an ornate mansion so big it has its own chapel, was the main objective of Richardson’s trip. He also met with the country’s foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, and the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Álvarez.

Since January, Richardson has been working for the release of the hostages, Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Tom Howes, all military contractors.

The rebels want to exchange the U.S. hostages for members of their group who are jailed by the Colombian government. FARC also holds other hostages, including a French-Colombian woman who was once a presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt.

Chávez’s blessing is a big deal for the governor, who some speculate wants to be secretary of state in a future Democratic administration.

Chávez is an inescapable figure here. Some reporters at the press conference were quick to gush about the Sunday program on which Chávez addresses the nation, sometimes with speeches lasting for hours.

He’s also a force in other places: Venezuela is the fourth-largest oil exporter and one of South America’s richest countries. The state-owned petroleum company, Petróleos de Venezuela, is one of the world’s largest.

Images of Chávez adorn the city, including one blue garbage truck spotted by a reporter that said ‘Con Chávez, sí,’ (With Chávez, yes.) Even the repair men at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs display their feelings. A renovation worker walked by one of the meetings with Richardson in a red pro-Chávez shirt, worn by time and speckled with paint.

But the residents of this city of more than 6 million aren’t insulated from the rest of the world: The plight of the hostages in next-door Colombia is a well-read story here, and many reporters seemed interested in Richardson’s role in the negotiations.

As for the governor, he had some cards lined up for him before he left. The bilingual 60-year old already had met Chávez and is familiar with South America and its politics.

To be sure his fortune would hold, Richardson said he brought a piece of his long-time lucky blue blazer to help. He wore the blazer on many an international foray during his time in Congress and while he worked for the Clinton administration.

He also took a gift for Chávez, but declined to say what it was.

If nothing else, Richardson’s meeting here has reignited hope among the family members of the hostages. Jo Rosano of Bristol, Conn., whose 36-year-old son, Marc Gonsalves, is among the three U.S. hostages, said she sees Richardson as among the first people to really work on the situation.

“Bush doesn’t care, Bush backs Uribe and could care less about the hostages,” she said. “It’s really a shame that this government is treating these American citizens like they don’t exist.”

The Bush administration has said it doesn’t deal with terrorist groups such as FARC. Bush and Chávez have an antagonistic relationship, with Chávez once calling him “the devil.”

The patience of the families, who have waited five years for some movement in the situation, has worn thin. But, Rosano said, she hasn’t given up hope. “It’s a matter of time. It’s a matter of testing faith,” she said.

“It will come. There is a reason God is using him (Richardson) for this purpose.”

Published April 27, 2008.