03 July 2008

Ingrid Betancourt


If you have spent much time in France during the past six years, you have heard the name of Ingrid Betancourt, you have seen her face staring down at you from photographs, and you have felt the weight of her absence. A Franco-Colombian citizen, equally at home in the barrio and the Faubourg Saint-Germain, she was kidnapped in February, 2002, by Marxist insurgents in her native country, where she was campaigning for the presidency as a Green.

As the years of her captivity dragged on, and as successive French and Colombian governments negotiated and schemed for her release, the French people prayed, petitioned, pleaded, and paraded on her behalf. Her family braved death threats to keep her name alive, through every medium available. The city of Paris has displayed her portrait on an immense board before the town hall. We could not forget her.

Her kidnappers, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, remained intractable. Call them terrorists, call them insurgents, call them (as they call themselves) an “exercise of the people,” they’re a foul lot, relying on kidnaps, extortion, and drug trade. They showed little serious interest in negotiation. Recent photographs and video of Betancourt showed her malnourished and ill. It seemed unreasonable to hope that she might survive.

But today, she is a free woman. The picture in front of the Hôtel de Ville will come down at last.

She was freed yesterday with 14 other hostages in a Colombian military operation that she herself called “risky” yet “flawless”. Her liberators posed as FARC members, and if at any point they’d aroused the suspicions of her captors, a bloodbath likely would have ensued. Can this strategy be repeated for the scores of other hostages held by FARC? It seems unlikely. But this time, it worked.

It’s to be wondered what Betancourt’s future holds. She was always idealistic and headstrong, and though captivity may have broken her health, I doubt it’s broken her spirit. Surely her compassion for her fellow Colombians won’t have been diminished by her experience, and she will want to work for them somehow. I’ve seen her kind before. To such a woman, no cause is ever lost, and it won’t be long before she becomes what she used to be: an irritant, an agitator, a Quixote of the Left. Such women can be exasperating. Their idealism can seem like naïveté, their determination tiresome even to the rest of us on the Left. But we’d be poorer without our Betancourts. It will be fascinating to watch what she does, and how far she succeeds.

And as France and the United States celebrate their national holidays, I am reminded that revolution and freedom are not necessarily related, or even acquainted.

Yet there will be time to consider such questions. For now, it seems enough to look at Betancourt’s face, not on a placard or poster or grainy videotape, but attending a press conference, like any other politician, and reunited with her family. The ordeal is over. Seldom have I found a greater or more unexpected pleasure in the morning news, and when I find myself wishing she would shut up and go away, I will know that all is right with the world again.

With her mother, Colombian politician Yolanda Pulecio, yesterday