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A Survivor’s Challenge in Colombia

Publié le 1 novembre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Ingrid Betancourt survived six years of captivity in the middle of the Colombian jungle. When all hope was lost, she was rescued in an extraordinary military operation. With her popularity intact, will she be able to recover her political career? Is she destined to solve the chronic instability created and supported by her former captors?

Red stripe
TC, Red stripe, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

A Political Cradle

The Betancourts, an aristocratic family of French origin, have a long history of involvement in Colombian political life. Her father, Gabriel Betancourt, served as a minister in the dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla in the 1950s and went on to become a top-notch diplomat with close ties to the US government (1). Her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, was a former Miss Colombia who served in the Colombian Congress as a member of the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Colombiano, or PL) and became quite popular due to her social commitments (2).

With this background, it seemed Ingrid Betancourt was destined to be a contender in Colombian politics. Educated in Paris at the prestigious Sciences-Po and married to a French diplomat, Betancourt did not return to Colombia until events during the 1989 presidential election campaign prompted her into action: Luis Carlos Galán, the Liberal candidate running on an anti-drugs platform, was assassinated at the hands of the FARC (Colombian Marxist Guerrilla forces) and directly in front of her mother, Pulecio. Under the mandate of Cesar Gaviria (the Liberal elected following Galán’s murder), Betancourt began working for the Ministry of Finance. The corruption scandals together with the aggressions against the civilian population perpetrated by the FARC at the beginning of the 90s and the lack of adequate responses from the Liberals made her take the plunge into politics herself. In 1994 she founded her own political party, the Green Oxygen Party (Partido Verde Oxigeno, or PVO) and was elected to the Chamber of Representatives.

New Focus, Risky Plan

The motivation for creating the PVO was to change the approach to dealing with the FARC and the continuous economic problems in Colombia. The Liberals, on one hand, proposed negotiating with the FARC, but the high – and visible – level of corruption these negotiations engendered was wearing thin the tolerance of the Colombian people. The Conservatives, on the other hand, preferred confronting the FARC directly, but this depended on foreign aid (via economic help from the USA) and would generate more violence. The PVO’s policy on guerrilla matters was similar to the Liberals’ but strove to avoid such corruption (3). Also, rather than resorting to the large-scale destruction of coca plantations with chemicals (which was the Conservative plan), the PVO proposed to take care of the farmers by offering alternative agricultural options, ones with acceptable economic outputs that avoided the perilous drug black market involved and enhanced their living standards.

Ingrid Betancourt’s presidential campaign was officially launched in 2001, buoyed by the political prominence and popularity she had achieved in her 1998 election to the Senate and her active campaign against drug-financed corruption. Those were years of social and economic unrest in Colombia as Andres Pastrana’s Conservative administration was coming to a close, without having fulfilled the expectations of peace and development that Colombians had trusted through their votes back in 1998. Negotiations with the FARC were at a dead end and the economic situation of the country had not substantially improved.

A cornerstone of Betancourt’s campaign was to visit Colombia’s southern region, which is a low-income area particularly threatened by guerrilla and narcotic traffic. Located in the dense Amazon jungle, it is a strategically ideal location for the FARC because human activity is almost untraceable and rebels can easily flee over the porous and proximate borders into Venezuela or Ecuador. The town of San Vicente de Caguan, a former peace talk location within the demilitarized zone, was appointed in the PVO’s agenda. Advised several times against this idea by friends and foes alike, Betancourt proceeded anyways. On 23 February 2002 Betancourt and her campaign members were kidnapped.

Politics Goes On

After the kidnapping, Betancourt’s campaign expectedly came to an abrupt end. Even though she was technically still a candidate (in fact she obtained 0.5% of votes), no one expected for her to be released soon or even to come back alive from captivity (4). In the end, Conservative Alvaro Uribe was elected president with more than 50% of votes and became one of the few Latin American heads-of-state with close ties to US.

During Betancourt’s captivity, the FARC continued their illegal activities in Colombia. Uribe, unlike his predecessor, made the start of negotiations conditional upon the declaration of a cease fire (i.e. stopping illegal activities as kidnapping) by the Colombian guerrillas. Such official position diluted the opportunity for dialogue and supposed a long confinement for Betancourt and the other hostages.

Uribe’s administration was able to handle economic difficulties and preserve internal order with the military and economic support of the USA. However, external support of the FARC from Ecuador and especially from Venezuela threatened the fragile domestic harmony created by American aid. This kind of support was later turned into direct intervention from Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, who volunteered to aid in the negotiations but on condition of the political legitimization of the FARC.

It was clear at that point that Chavez was gathering support and sympathy towards FARC, minimizing guerrilla drug funded illegal activities (5). Chavez moves inscribe themselves into his greater goal of diminishing the influence of the USA in Latin America and enhancing his influence unifying communist ideology throughout the continent. His negotiations, however, only helped to liberate Clara Rojas, Betancourt’s campaign manager. Rojas’ liberation, nevertheless, was a clear gesture from FARC to Chavez, given that she was released during a humanitarian mission from Venezuela. Right after this, Chavez was removed from the formal negotiating team under Uribe’s express request.

Operation Jaque and a Political Career Reborn
During Betancourt’s years of captivity, the FARC suffered a severe setback: their no. 2 man, Raul Reyes, was killed on March 1, 2008. The military operation responsible for his death was planned to be performed in Colombia but when the FARC members retreated the raid ended up in Ecuador. The successful operation was interpreted as an unauthorized border trespassing, an exaggerated interpretation of the facts since Colombia does not have any territorial or clear political ambition over Ecuador. With Chavez’s support, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa almost declared war on Colombia; the incident was only resolved diplomatically many months later. This incident seemed to confirm not only Uribe’s reticence to resume negotiations but also the high level of support provided by Correa and Chavez to the FARC.

Apparently Betancourt’s liberation was at dead point, but not for much longer. “Operation Jaque” was a military infiltration operation that successfully took place on July 2, 2008, rescuing Ingrid Betancourt and the 14 other hostages without firing a single shot.

Operation Jaque did not only directly benefit the freed hostages, their families and their friends; it also provided a major boost to Uribe’s already-healthy popularity. However, it is also possible that Uribe released, in fact, a potential political adversary who is far removed from his own methods and philosophy.

Ingrid Betancourt has a strong political background, she and her family have long been involved in politics in Colombia, and it is just a matter of time until she regains her popularity and uses it to obtain the Presidency (6).

However, her political stance towards the guerrillas following her release is not entirely clear. The PVO’s focus needs to ensure without hesitation but in a pacific way that the government will prevail over the FARCs.

Whatever the peaceful and idealistic measures Betancourt could follow as a potential president, Uribe’s victories cannot be undone. External interests from Chavez, even though Betancourt is not aligned with US, are dangerous for Colombia since the guerrilla could regain the ground it lost during Uribe’s administration.

Ingrid Betancourt will need to have the courage to confront, peacefully or not, her former captors not only for her, but also to make Colombia a peaceful and prosperous country. It is up to her to face the challenge.


(1) Gabriel Betancourt Mejia was a Kennedy counselor at the beginning of the 60’s. “Le Nouvelle Observateur” Dec 13 2007 http://hebdo.nouvelobs.com/hebdo/parution/p2249/articles/a362212.html
(2)Yolanda Pulecio was the founder of “Hogares Infantiles de Bogotá” a foundation aimed to sustain and educate poor and abandoned children. “Series El Colombiano” 2007 http://www.elcolombiano.com/proyectos/serieselcolombiano/textos/elecciones/ingrid.htm
(3)In fact, Betancourt was an anticorruption militant during the 90s. She was a fierce critic of the administration of Ernesto Samper, who was later accused of receiving money from the Cali drug cartel. “Semana.com” 01/1996 http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?IdArt=44895
(4)“Registraduria Nacional del Estado Civil ” (Federal Colombian Entity) 07/2002 http://www.registraduria.gov.co/2002PRP1/e/vpresidente0.htm?1
(5)Just one day after Clara Rojas liberation, Chavez asked Colombia and the International community to change the status of FARCs from terrorist group to insurgent army. “La Nacion” 01/2008 http://www.lanacion.com.ar/nota.asp?nota_id=978386
(6) One gauge of her popularity is that both domestic and international media welcomed her home as a hero. She has received the Prince of Asturias for her courage from Spain, the Geuzenpenning prize from the Netherlands, and cities such as Santiago de Chile and Rome have nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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