Since July 2, when Colombia’s armed forces so spectacularly freed Ingrid Betancourt and 14 male hostages from their oppressive jungle imprisonment, a frenzy of adoration for the one-time leftist Colombian presidential candidate has engulfed the world. Politicians and reporters have pushed aside virtually everything else, including the fact that seven commandoes freed hostages from 50 armed FARC guerrillas without firing a shot.
Does Betancourt deserve all the attention lavished upon her, even after six and a half years in confinement? If so, what about the nearly forgotten eleven Colombian soldiers who had been interned as long as a decade? Or the three American civilian trainers who endured more than five years under identical circumstances?
Ingrid Betancourt was captured by the FARC during her fringe-leftist 2002 presidential campaign (won by current president Alvaro Uribe, whose decision to support the risky rescue mission saved her), after entering San Vicente del Caguan, a remote village controlled by the FARC, despite multiple warnings that she was in grave danger. She countered that it was safe for her to enter the town, and that she could speak usefully with the terrorists because “they trust me.”
Shortly after being captured (together with vice-presidential running mate Clara Rojas), the Colombian and foreign governments made protracted, costly, and futile efforts to free Betancourt and other “high-profile” hostages. Indeed, seized computer records of top FARC comandante Raul Reyes clearly describe both Swiss and French government efforts to pay for Betancourt’s release, her capture having become a European cause celebre orchestrated by former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin.
Villepin, who has personal ties to the French-Colombian hostage, got nowhere. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government took up the cause and paid a reported $500,000 in ransom, which the FARC leadership kept, together with Ingrid Betancourt.
However, once freed and safely in Bogota, Ingrid spent less than 24 hours in her country, and only briefly thanked President Uribe before leaving for France on Sarkozy’s airplane. On landing in Paris, Betancourt announced to the press that “France has saved my life,” although in fact their efforts undoubtedly prolonged her confinement. In addition to paying the unrequited ransom, Sarkozy made her release an international issue, paving the way for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s vow to make sure FARC’s status as a terrorist group would be changed to that of a “belligerent force” upon her release. All of this convinced her captors that they had a very valuable bargaining chip indeed.
She showed no interest in returning to Colombia for the joyous celebration on July 20 of the country’s independence and the hostages’ release, instead watching the proceedings on a giant television screen in Paris’s Trocadero Park. Ingrid watched millions of citizens celebrating in the streets of more than one thousand Colombian communities, as thousands of Parisians and resident Colombians idolized her in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
Betancourt’s behavior problems go beyond ingratitude, though. Since her release, she has repeatedly called for an international effort to liberate the estimated 2,000 remaining hostages through negotiations — even though multiple negotiation efforts failed to gain her and others freedom in the face of FARC intransigence. She’s taken every opportunity to make this case, whether speaking to a presidential audience or France’s Assemble National, not to mention endless press interviewers. She has bathed in the glow of soporifically soft questioning, including appearances on CNN’s Larry King Live and the BBC’s Hard Talk (with the normally hard-nosed Stephen Sackur).
She further announced on July 4 that important participants in the proposed negotiation crusade should include Chavez, plus presidents Rafael Correa and Cristina Kirchner, respectively of Ecuador and Argentina. The problem here is that Chavez is FARC’s most ardent foreign supporter, and the other two are close runners-up.
The close FARC–Chavez relationship has built steadily since Chavez’s 1999 election. At first Chavez provided luxurious Caracas housing to terrorist leaders, and relations have progressed to the point that he has condoned numberless jungle encampments for FARC troops and appointed Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin as his personal envoy to FARC. Chacin notoriously saluted FARC representatives during a January 2008 prisoner exchange, saying, “We are with you . . . Be strong. We support your cause.”
Most disturbing is the massive cocaine transit from eastern Colombia to Apure, Venezuela, for export to the United States, bringing financial benefit to both Chavez and FARC leaders. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates 175 tons — 17 percent of U.S. consumption — were shipped from Apure in 2007 via 219 single-engine-airplane flights.
In the last few weeks, Betancourt has received calls from presidents around the world, including Chavez (who tried to put the best face on her release, which he had failed to secure in 2007). With the French press comparing her to Joan of Arc, the country’s most famous heroine and saint, President Sarkozy gave her France’s vaunted Legion of Honor. Maintaining the beatific drumbeat, Spain’s president, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, gave Betancourt a biography of Saint Teresa.
Nearly a month since her escape, the question must be asked: Is Ingrid of Paris and Bogota a reincarnated Joan of Arc, or is she suffering from Stockholm syndrome? It seems incredible that having endured numberless indignities by her FARC captors during more than six years’ jungle confinement, she could speak so naively. So far, to the chagrin of her Colombian rescuers, the record suggests Ingrid Betancourt is sadly deluded.
– John R. Thomson is a geopolitical analyst focusing on developing countries. Dorotea Laserna is a commentator on Latin American affairs. Both are based in Bogota, Colombia and welcome comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .