Freedom for Betancourt/ransom or rescue?
|The Associated Press|
|Ingrid Betancourt in Paris July 6.|
It's sweet to know Ingrid Betancourt is no longer being held by rebels in the Colombian jungle, but let's not jump to conclusions, either about the circumstances of her release, or its implications.
The Franco-Colombian politician, captured by FARC rebels in 2002, was held (at least partly) in the Caqueta region of southeastern Colombia, a dangerous and unforgiving place where she came to see every leaf, every branch, every pathway as something vile and ready to attack her. She was campaigning for president in 2002, operating under a "safe-conduct" from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), when she was betrayed and taken. They surrounded her vehicle on the isolated road inland from the little airport at San Vicente del Caguan, while Betancourt was attempting to negotiate peace with the rebels, as had so many national and international diplomats and politicians before her, including Canadians. I know that area well and felt chills when she was captured because I've reported from FARC camps there under the same kind of "safe conduct" arrangement the rebels so easily broke with Betancourt. It's a hot, humid hell with no light. Her courage, resilience and strength are unassailable and should be applauded.
However, too many fast assumptions have been made since her release, with arguments that serve politicians in Colombia, the U.S. and Canada. President Alvaro Uribe sees it as justification to seek a third term, a bid that would require a constitutional amendment because it's currently forbidden under Colombian law. His second election in 2006 has already been disputed, with the former congressman who cast the deciding vote for Uribe in 2006 receiving a four-year prison sentence for fraud. Furthermore, while Uribe's ratings have soared since Betancourt's release (and he has been praised by the former captive herself), the Washington Post, among others, recently reported his cousin and close ally was arrested for alleged ties to the country's death squads, part of a widening inquiry that has implicated a quarter of the Colombian Congress.
It's far from clear whether the rescue account of the Colombian military/government is correct. Within days of her release last week, national Swiss radio reported the rescue came about after a $20-million ransom was paid to FARC guerrillas, and not after a daring ruse in which rebels were tricked into "relocating" her by helicopter, along with 14 other hostages, including three U.S. contract workers. Betancourt doesn't believe the Swiss report, but it's impossible to know the circumstances in the murky politics of Colombia. What she saw happen — which includes a FARC rebel being relieved of his weapons and stripped naked — could well have been part of a plot to get a paid collaborator to safety. There are many questions to explore. Betancourt looked remarkably healthy for somebody just coming out of captivity. (Even a couple of weeks or a month in jungle settings left me looking like death warmed over.) I am in no way questioning Betancourt's ordeal or many years in captivity — and I want to underscore that point!!! — but I did wonder when exactly she was released. Was there, for any number of reasons, a substantial delay before we saw her?
I've read more than enough about internal Colombian politics over the last few days from pundits who have never been to Colombia and who write from afar. They must be taken with a grain of salt, especially those with a free-trade agenda to flog.
Which leads us to the other serious issue with Colombia: free trade. John McCain, a huge proponent of free trade with Colombia for both the U.S. and Canada, happened to be in the South American country when Betancourt was rescued. What a coincidence. He saw her release as proof Colombia is ready for a trade agreement. But how can we tell through the smoke and mirrors? The Canadian parliamentary committee studying the Canada-Colombia deal recommended no deal until an extensive human rights review had been completed. Even though a deal has been announced, that still sounds like good advice.