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Hugo Chavez, the FARC laptop, and the non-existent emails
Remember the laptop computer that, according to the Colombian government, miraculously survived the bombing of the Farc guerrilla camp in Ecuador? Yes, that one. The one that allegedly contained thousands of emails showing the extensive collaboration between the leadership of the rebel group and representatives of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez.
The alleged contents of the laptop were exploited without delay by US officials seeking to increase pressure on the Venezuelan government. US Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said that this was "the first time that we've stumbled across something coming from the Farc drawing such a straight line" between the rebels and Chavez.
Amidst the acres of news coverage generated by the ‘discovery’ of the laptop, the Economist provided a helpful summary:
"Interpol has now concluded that the huge cache of e-mails and other documents recovered from the computers of Raúl Reyes, a senior leader of the Farc guerrillas killed in a Colombian bombing raid on his camp in Ecuador on March 1st, are authentic and undoctored."
The Guardian’s self-styled Caracas correspondent, Rory Carroll, even managed to intercept some of the emails:
"In one leaked email dated January 2007 the Farc's military leader, Jorge Briceño, also known as Mono Jojoy, told the rebels' governing secretariat that he planned to ask Chávez for a loan of $250m, 'to be repaid when we take power'."
"In another coded email from April 2005 a rebel identified as Iván wrote that 'Tino', who was said to be responsible for Venezuela 's Popular Defence Units, a civilian militia, wanted help from Farc in teaching guerrilla tactics."
Ben Whitford, a writer for the Guardian's 'Comment is free' website, declared with undisguised glee:
“it looks like Chavez has been caught red-handed”.
Whitford went on to call for the USA to impose “smart sanctions” against Venezuela if the Organization of American States failed to conduct a “formal, impartial and transparent investigation into Venezuela 's apparent efforts to hurt its neighbour.”
International NGOs were also moved to comment. A statement by Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed that:
"email messages found on laptop computers reportedly recovered from a FARC encampment by Colombian security forces in March 2008 describe meetings in which Venezuelan officials also appear to have offered assistance to the Colombian guerrillas, including safe havens, weapons procurement, and possibly even financial support."
While admitting that HRW had not actually had direct access to the 'emails', the organisation nevertheless described their alleged contents in some detail:
“But according to excerpts released by the Colombian government and reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the files contain email correspondence in which FARC commanders recount multiple meetings with Venezuelan officials. These messages refer to a meeting in which President Chávez reportedly offered to provide the FARC with safe havens within Venezuelan territory. They also mention meetings in which two Venezuelan generals, Hugo Carvajal Barrios and Clíver Alcalá Cordones, appear to offer the guerrillas assistance in procuring weapons. The email message refers to another meeting in which Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín reportedly promised to facilitate the delivery of arms shipments to the guerrilla group. In addition, there are several email messages that allude to what appear to be offers of financial support to the FARC, including allocating to the guerrillas an oil ration which they could sell for profit.”
José Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s Americas director, added: “The emails raise serious questions about Venezuela ’s relationship with the Colombian guerrillas that deserve serious answers.”
Chavez’s answer that the emails and documents were fakes and that Interpol’s secretary general, US citizen Ronald Noble, was “a tremendous actor”, was dismissed without investigation by the same Western media that brought us the Zinoviev letter
and Iraqi WMD.
And so for nine long months after the Colombian military obliterated the Farc camp, leaving only one survivor: that amazing bombproof laptop, the official version stood largely unchallenged. Chavez was damned as a sponsor of terrorism, his reputation sullied, his honesty called into question.
Then, in early December, the official version, already widely disbelieved across Latin America, began to crumble. The Colombian government-appointed investigator, Captain Ronald Coy, stated under oath that he had found only word documents in the laptop, and not a single email:
QUESTION: “Please state to this office if you have found in the electronic elements seized from Raul Reyes, files corresponding to email messages sent to or received by him.”
COY’S ANSWER: “Proper emails have not been found so far. A large amount of e-mail addresses have been found, but Reyes kept the information stored in word and other Microsoft software.”
So no actual emails. And consequently, no proof that any of the alleged authors of these word documents sent or received anything.
So how did the Guardian’s Caracas correspondent end up reporting on something which according to the official investigator had not yet been found? What is the explanation for Rory Carroll’s ‘WMD moment’? We don’t know. We will probably never know. The Guardian, which rushed to report the existence of the emails, has, in common with the rest of the British and US media, chosen not to report their non-existence.
This article was submitted by the author, who is a regular contributor to the Guardian's 'Comment is free', for publication in his blog on the newspaper's website. The Guardian refused to publish it.