It was one of the boldest initiatives yet for Latin America's emerging leftist alliance and it didn't even get off the ground.
Answering a call by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, political heavyweights from five governments attempted to break through a deadlock in the region's most entrenched conflict: Colombia's half-century guerrilla war.
But for all their devotion to Latin American unity, observers from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba and Ecuador couldn't persuade the secretive Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to abandon its deep mistrust of Colombia's government and fulfill a weeks-old promise to free three hostages, including a three-year old boy.
The FARC, in a letter to Chavez, blamed operations by Colombia's US-backed military for their decision not to tell where in the eastern Colombian jungles, a region the size of France, two Venezuelan helicopters could pick up the captives.
As the mission fell apart Monday, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe dismissed the rebels' accusation as more lies from a "terrorist group."
Chavez, in turn, sympathized with the FARC and accused Uribe of "throwing a bomb" on his efforts to recover the hostages: ex-congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, former vice presidential candidate Clara Rojas and her three-year-old son Emmanuel, fathered by a guerrilla captor.
The truth about what led the FARC to get cold feet may never be known, and Chavez has vowed to plow on for the hostages' release despite the setback.
But by failing to deliver the hostages, the FARC left Chavez hanging in a highly visible way that will likely force the firebrand leftist to take a different tack.
The mission's collapse "shows Chavez doesn't have the ability to get an express response from the FARC. He clearly can't influence FARC leadership to make quick decisions," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst for the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
For the past month, Chavez has held out an olive branch to the FARC while publicly vilifying Uribe, his ideological adversary, as WashingtonÕs lapdog and puppet.
Fetching the hostages on Colombian soil was widely seen as political payback for Uribe's abrupt ending of Chavez's efforts to broker a swap of 47 hostages - including three American defense contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt - for hundreds of jailed rebels.
By inviting former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and other like-minded observers, it was also a chance for Chavez to rally an alliance of leftist governments, many of which share the Venezuelan leader's antagonism for US President George W. Bush.
So confident was Chavez of success, he even welcomed American filmmaker Oliver Stone to film the handover as part of a documentary.
But the strategy backfired amid the FARC's recalcitrance.
"This reveals the FARC for who they are - not a group that's responsive to the outside world," said Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Washington-based Inter American Dialogue. "Chavez thought since he's the revolutionary leader, they'd fall in line. And he assembled all his friends and they would be witness to this success."
Although Chavez is unlikely to suffer much of a setback among Venezuela's already polarized society, the drawn-out, ill-fated mission could be a blow to the ambitions of his leftist allies.
After being marooned three days in Colombia, with little more to do than shop for extra underwear they didn't pack for what the Venezuelan leader hyped as a lightning-quick mission, the observers returned home on New Year's Eve - some of them visibly disgusted.
Shifter predicted that from now on, Chavez's allies "may not be as drawn in by his bluster and bravado."
"He's shown he's not the miracle worker. Colombia's problems have been around for a long time," Shifter said.
But Brazil's observer, Marco Aurelio Garcia, offered to return and said he doesn't think the tensions between Chavez and Uribe would keep the hostages from being freed.
And because the rebels have an ideological affinity for Chavez, the socialist president remains a leading hope for reuniting the hostages with their families, who see Uribe's hardline policies as an obstacle to dialogue with the FARC. Since Uribe took office in 2002, the two sides have never held face-to-face talks. Instead, he's used aggressive American intelligence sharing backed by $600 million in annual military aid to drive the FARC deeper into the jungle.
Chavez says his mission continues despite the mistrust.
"Nothing has failed. The operation is continuing," Chavez said Monday night, adding that Venezuela plans to leave its helicopters in Colombia in hopes of still receiving pick-up coordinates from the FARC.
The direction of the hostage drama may also depend in large part on the next steps by Uribe, who on Monday shocked friends and foe alike by saying the FARC might not even be holding the boy, Emmanuel.
Uribe said a boy matching the description of Emmanuel was handed over malnourished and suffering from malaria to child welfare authorities in a FARC stronghold in July 2005. The boy, named Juan David Gomez, has been living in a Bogota foster home since.
Uribe said DNA tests of Rojas' family were needed to prove or disprove the "hypothesis." A group of Colombian officials arrived in Caracas on Tuesday to carry out the tests among relatives.
The results, which could take a few days, could be the ultimate arbiter of who is most to blame for stalling the hostages' release. (AP)
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