Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day

While Americans are lighting firecrackers and gathering for barbeques today, Colombians and the French are celebrating independence, too ... the independence of Íngrid Betancourt. Since being kidnapped by the FARC – a left-wing guerilla group involved in the cocaine trade and kidnapping – in 2002, Betancourt had been held hostage somewhere in the Colombian jungle. At the time of her kidnapping, she was running for president against Álvaro Uribe, who is Colombia’s current president. Betancourt had quite the resume. She had duel Colombian-French citizenship, attended elite schools, and became a Colombian senator in 1998 at age 36. During her six and a half years in captivity she became immensely popular in Colombia and France due to publicity from non-governmental human rights organizations, as well as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been very outspoken for her release.

The day finally arrived on the evening of July 2. Colombian military intelligence officers pretended to be a non-governmental organization that was sympathetic to the FARC. They arrived in an area of the jungle called “Guaviare” on helicopters, saying they were on a humanitarian mission to take the hostages elsewhere. Betancourt and three American captives boarded the helicopter bound for Bogotá.

The timing was ideal for this clever plan. In the last few months, the FARC’s top two leaders have reportedly died and hundreds of its members have left or surrendered. In a December 2007, a video tape was released on the news showing a frail-looking Betancourt in the middle of the jungle along with a letter she had written to her mother. Betancourt said she was losing the will to live and appeared very thin. In that video were three American military contractors, who were also rescued with Betancourt.

In the recent news videos, Betancourt seems healthy, mentally and physically. If there is anyone who appreciates his or her freedom, it is Betancourt and the other rescued hostages. Presidential hopeful John McCain had visited Colombia on Tuesday and told reporters that President Uribe and Colombia Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos had briefed him about the Betancourt mission.

Indeed Betancourt, her mother, husband, and two children were elated. “Nirvana, paradise that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment,” she told reporters. Upon her arrival in Bogotá, reporters asked her whether she would become Colombia’s next president? It may seem like an inappropriate question after living as a prisoner in the middle of the jungle for more than six years. However, her immense fame and high approval rating can only be matched by that of President Uribe, whose final term ends in almost two years. She deflected this question, saying “only God knows” about her political future and that “at this moment, I just want to feel like one more Colombian soldier serving the country.” She soon had to leave, however. Today, Betancourt flew to Paris to visit President Sarkozy and the myriad French supporters. Betancourt was raised in France.

Betancourt and Sarkozy acknowledged that there are many hostages still in the Colombian jungle. In the meantime, at least for today, Betancourt serves as an invaluable reminder of how precious it is to live in freedom.


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