By George E. Curry
[FIRST OF TWO PARTS]
HAVANA, Cuba (NNPA) – Jesse Jackson says now that Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has rejected an unconditional offer from rebels to turn over a captured former military veteran to the civil rights leader, it is now up to the United States government to pressure Santos to allow the transfer.
In an exclusive interview here with the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, Jackson said: “The U.S. government must now use its leverage to get an American veteran out of Colombia who has been set free on an unconditional basis if I am able to bring him out. The question is whether the government is willing to leave him there rather than letting me bring him out. I hope that’s not the case.”
Jackson, after persuading top officials of FARC (the Spanish acronym for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) Friday night to release Kevin Scott Sutay [who is sometimes referred to as Kevin Scott] to him, was clearly disappointed when he learned early Sunday morning that Santos, whom Jackson had met two weeks ago in Colombia, had vetoed the transfer.
In a statement Saturday, FARC said, “The release of U.S. citizen Kevin Scott is a unilateral decision of the FARC that strictly responds to humanitarian considerations. Nothing has been demanded in return for this gesture, which only aims to contribute to a positive environment for peace in Columbia.”
The statement said, “The FARC-EP has taken the decision to ask Reverend Jesse Jackson to make available his experience and integrity to expedite Kevin Scott’s release. This mission will be accompanied by Mr. Carlos Lozanao Guillen, member of Colombians for Peace.”
Santos tweeted his response Saturday night, saying: “Only the Red Cross will be authorised to arrange for the handover of the North American kidnapped by the FARC. We will not allow a media spectacle.”
Santos’s decision was the latest twist in a 3-month saga to gain the release of a former soldier who fought in Afghanistan. His release, if and when it comes, might be as bizarre as circumstances surrounding his capture on June 20 in the rural town of Retomo.
According to Bloomberg news service, “A week before being abducted, Sutay said in an interview he planned to walk through more than 300 miles (483 kilometers) of rain forest to the town of Inrida, on the border with Venezuela. Staff at Hotel Las Palmas in the provincial capital of San Jose del Guaviare, where Sutay was staying before he was abducted, were so concerned for their guest’s safety that they called police, hotel administrator Adriana Sanchez said.
“’I explained to him that it was dangerous, that it was an area without much military presence,’ Sanchez said in a telephone interview. ‘He kept insisting. So we called police and advised them that he wanted to make this trip, and they should take action.’
“National Police officers came to the hotel and tried ‘many times’ to dissuade Sutay from making the trip, Sanchez said.”
Sutay, 26, was described as lanky and sporting a military-style crew cut. According the Los Angeles Times, he was an explosives specialist with the U.S. Navy. He refused to be talked out of his trip.
At a dinner Saturday in a private dining room at Hotel Nacional in Havana with Jesse Jackson and his U.S. delegation, a top official of FARC’s Central High Command said when Sutay was captured, rebels suspected him of being a mercenary.
The official, referred to as the commander, said “Citizen Kevin” was caught in the middle of the jungle in the heart of a war zone. He said at the time Sutay was captured, he had in his possession a knapsack that contained a military uniform, a watch with a photographic camera on it, and other items that would allow him to survive in the jungle.
He said Sutay told them he had been out of the Navy for two years, that he had served in Afghanistan and recounted his life in general. According to FARC, Sutay had been hiking through Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, and Bogota prior to his capture. He was born in New York and entered Colombia on June 8, just 12 days before his capture.
“We reached the conclusion that perhaps this is not a mercenary, but maybe an adventurer,” the commander told Jackson.
FARC has been in formal negotiations with Colombian officials to end the 50-year conflict. The talks, which began in Cuba last November, have produced significant progress, both sides have reported.
A month after Sutay’s capture, FARC offered to release him.
“Despite the right we have to hold Kevin Scott as a prisoner of war, we have taken the political decision to free him in the spirit of talks that are advancing in Havana with the Colombian government,” FARC said in a statement.
It asked that a humanitarian commission be convened by former Senator Piedad Cordoba that includes the International Committee of the Red Cross be established to facilitate Sutay’s release. Cordoba had previously brokered the release of prisoners held by FARC.
However, Santos rejected some of the conditions for the release of the American and said he would not let FARC conduct a “media show.”
Jackson said he thought he had overcome that objection when he met with Santos and, later, Sergio Jaramillo Caro, the High Commissioner for Peace. In both meetings, Jackson said he assured the officials that his interest extended beyond the release of one U.S. citizen.
“We met with a group [FARC] not to just get him out, but to deal with the issue of their moving toward exchanging bullets for ballots, bringing them into the political process,” Jackson said in his interview with NNPA. “Second, they want to work with the rural poor to turn poppy seed farms into real agricultural food production. That’s the real issue around the drug flow out of Columbia to America.”
Jackson repeated his point that the U.S. must do more to help him bring Kevin Sutay back home.
“We know that the United States and Columbia have a relationship,” he said. “An American veteran is in captivity. The U.S. should help us bring him out. We obtained permission to to bring him out. Now, we need help getting him. If the Colombian government takes a contrary position, that’s anti-American and will encourage other countries to capture Americans.”
[NEXT: How Jesse Jackson negotiated Sutay’s release]