Colombia: The Betancourt Rescue and Beyond

In spite of Ingrid Betancourt’s extraordinary rescue, the fate of Colombia is unlikely to be any brighter than before unless she accepts a new mission and returns to the public life, and President Alvaro Uribe commits a patriotic act by declining to seek a constitutional change allowing him to run for a third term in 2010.

• Betancourt’s unlikely but “impeccable” rescue may involve less than meets the eye
• Uribe – a divisive figure who may now shine, but reflects Colombia’s deep malaise
• Largely due to its own self interest, U.S. policy is blindly pro-Uribe
• Ingrid Betancourt is a proven quantity, having run a very respectable presidential campaign in 2002

The liberation of Ingrid Betancourt
The liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, three American citizens, and 11 public officials by an elite unit of the Colombian military is one of the gravest blows ever dealt to the FARC in its more than 44 years of armed struggle. Most importantly, the exploit served to reveal the FARC’s institutional weaknesses, their impaired internal communication, and a plummeting public standing, both throughout the region and with the Colombian public. The unlikely incident further discredits the myth that the guerrilla group is a monolithic and impenetrable organization and suggests that the continued viability of the FARC as a coherent initiative is open to doubt.

Betancourt’s rescue, although simple in theory, was highly implausible in practice. The rescue operation called Jaque, had been in progress for over a year, according to Army Commander Freddy Padilla, and was able to penetrate the FARC secretariat and other FARC quarters. Ostensibly, the story is that the Colombian military infiltrated a FARC administrative zone and then ensured, by means of a fiendishly clever ruse, that many of the high-profile FARC hostages, including trophy detainee Ingrid Betancourt, were gathered in the same proximity and at the same time, allegedly at the behest of the FARC high command. At this point, an elite squad of the Colombian military, using two unmarked Russian helicopters, went into action. Pretending to be an international NGO squad and garbed in Che Guevara T-shirts, the personnel on board at the helicopter reaffirmed to the FARC forces on the ground that they had been entrusted to transport the hostages to a rendezvous point with Alfonso Cano, FARC’s new supreme leader. Immediately after taking off, the Colombian helicopter crew (in reality a Colombian intelligence unit) neutralized the FARC rebels accompanying the hostages, who had been tricked into boarding the helicopter. The helicopter then flew the hostages to freedom. Ingrid Betancourt describes the rescue as “absolutely impeccable,” for “there was no violence—not even one bullet was shot.”

The ultimate winner: Alvaro Uribe Velez? Ingrid Betancourt? Or the Colombian people?
President Uribe’s already high approval rating spiked to a record 91 percent after the military rescue, according to the Colombian newspaper, El Espectador. One would think, then, that Colombians would be likely to consider his mandate as anything but illegitimate, taking into account that the FARC has certainly lost much of its political clout and geopolitical leverage as a result of the brilliant rescue, as reflected in Uribe’s astronomical poll rating. Thus, the government currently has almost unlimited leverage to set the conditions for negotiations with the FARC, now that Uribe has called for a humanitarian agreement to be achieved between the two contending parties.

If President Uribe voluntarily leaves office after his current term ends in 2010, he will leave with the gratitude of the nation and could go down as one of the greatest presidents in the country’s recent history. However, due to the controversial nature of his presidency, including the numerous scandals affecting his office administration, and the corruption surrounding para-politics, his military policies and the Yidis Medina case, it is best for the sake of Colombia’s democracy that he leave office after his second mandate. If he remains in the race, however, his divisive and combative personality will prevent him from making compromises with Venezuela and Ecuador, let alone the FARC. Although the FARC is undisputedly at one of its weakest points in its history, it still deeply resents Uribe for his past actions: for his sanctioning brutality, his indifference to violence and for giving the army free rein in its operations. Amongst these actions were Colombia’s military initiative against FARC in Ecuador on March 1st, Bogota’s payment of a bribe of up to two and a half million dollars for the commissioned killing of one of FARC’s top leaders, Ivan Rios, and Uribe’s enthusiastic support for the controversial Convivir initiative, which included the creation of local self-defense cooperatives that resorted to brutal tactics to defend against guerrilla attacks. These measures have made carrying on negotiations with the FARC very difficult.

With the muscular denouncement of FARC’s kidnapping tactics by Ecuador’s President Correa and Fidel Castro, the guerrilla force has never been more isolated. Furthermore with the meeting between President Uribe and Chavez in Venezuela on July 11th, with the purpose of ameliorating relations between the two countries, it looks like even some of those who seemed sympathetic to the FARC have now either disassociated completely from the guerrilla or are willing to take a more temperate attitude to the Colombian government, if it really seeks a settlement with the guerrilla forces. Yet, it might well be that the FARC, out of principle or zealotry and due to their passionately held goal centered on what the new Colombia should look like, will do whatever is necessary to thwart President Uribe from receiving the glory of being the one Colombian president who was able to achieve the FARC’s demilitarization and demobilization.

Operation Jaque, was it all a set-up?
The remarkably intricate nature of the rescue has raised some speculation whether it might have been, in spite of the military’s insistence, not an all-Colombian Armed Forces operation, but a joint effort by the Colombian military and one or more FARC deserters, and that massive bribes may have been involved. An organization that has been surviving for over 40 years and was known for its capacity to endure under the most trying of conditions is not likely to have fallen for such an obvious trap. One explanation can be found in the fact that, according to Ingrid Betancourt, the FARC, prior to the rescue mission, seemed to be going through a period of pronounced scarcity of supplies and had been enduring severe operative problems in the recent months. She states that the government seemed to have cornered the FARC, and that heavy pressure was being put on it, causing desertions and various acts of bribery to occur at an alarming rate. Therefore, it is conceivable that some FARC rebels from that sector had defected and were cooperating in the operation with the Colombian military, and that hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars had exchanged hands.

Furthermore, the timing of Uribe’s rescue was suspiciously perfect. Just when the legislator Yidis Medina had been found guilty of bribery for changing her vote to allow Uribe to be reelected, and just when Colombia was going through a profound institutional crisis which put Uribe’s mandate into question, the paramount success of Betancourt’s rescue hurried all of the previous legitimate concerns over Uribe into the trash bin. However, there are increasing doubts concerning the details of the rescue and the fact that some of them might not have occurred in their entirety as related by the Colombian authorities. For example Swiss radio Romande journalist, Frederich Blassel, claims that reliable sources indicate that 20 million U.S. dollars were in fact paid to the FARC to facilitate the escape of the 15 hostages. The channel said that the hostages “were in reality ransomed for a high price, and the whole operation afterwards was a set-up,” and that the U.S. was somehow involved in securing the funds, providing intelligence, performing logistical services, providing infrastructure and training availability in general.

Operation Ingrid
A very different scenario for Colombia could present itself in the near future if Ingrid Betancourt decides to enter the Colombian presidential elections in 2010. Although a notable politician before her kidnapping, she has acknowledged that her campaign was running out of steam when her kidnapping occurred, and that she was becoming marginalized in the race. Nonetheless, her capture by the FARC mesmerized average Colombians and brought growing shame upon the guerrilla force for visiting such pain upon her, while it gave Betancourt a much higher international political profile. Both the French and the Colombian governments recognized Betancourt’s humanitarian plight as a top priority, and by the time she and her colleagues were freed, Colombian civil society had become very involved in calling for a humanitarian agreement that would free all the remaining hostages held by both sides from captivity.

During her six and a half years as a hostage, Betancourt was held under tight control. At the same time, during this period she had become one of Colombia’s most revered and admired political figures. If she in fact decides to run in 2010, and if Uribe decides against running for an unprecedented third term, the incumbent president would be recognized by this generation as having performed what will be seen as a grand gesture, while helping to transform her into being the most formidable possible candidate for 2010. An alternative scenario might be that Uribe’s rescue of Betancourt will end up with his inadvertently having created the political force that might eventually oust him from the presidency in the next elections, if he chooses to run. According to Colombian newspaper La Semana and Gallup Poll, President Uribe’s and Betancourt’s popularity are head to head at 85 percent and 83 percent respectively. If the three percent margin of error of the poll is taken into account, these two political figures are technically equally popular in Colombia, making Betancourt a very palpable political threat to Uribe. Furthermore, Betancourt, who certainly has had first-hand experience with the FARC, has now undertaken, as her personal mission, to liberate the remaining hostages and for treating her former FARC captors without “hate.” Today’s reality may be that uniquely, Betancourt might be the one person in Colombia able to bring an end to her ravished country’s bitter armed conflict.

Ingrid’s new mission
After being reunited with her sons and daughter, Betancourt called for international support to achieve the liberation of the rest of the hostages. She called on the presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador and Argentina to help with Colombia’s peace efforts by strengthening its democratic institution. Now may be the ideal moment for peace negotiations between the FARC and the government to once again commence. Since Colombian authorities find themselves in an indisputably advantageous position in their prospects to resolve the current conflict, they now have the opportunity to make reasonable demands, and then call upon all countries involved in the current deadlock to reach a humanitarian agreement instead of perpetuating an armed conflict with the guerrilla forces. At the same time, the hope is that Uribe will not “get drunk in his own success,” as the Colombian press agency Anncol warned last Thursday, July 3rd. However, new signs of danger have started to manifest themselves. For instance, according to the major Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, on July 8th, Commissioner of Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo announced that the government would seek to negotiate the armed conflict without turning to the international community because of “the difficulties with the [international] mediators, and since the FARC are already fractured, it is better to establish direct contact.” However, the lack of international support and mediation was one of the biggest reasons why the negotiations failed in the previous administrations. Uribe would be wise to learn from the lessons of the past, to draw upon as much help as he can get when it comes to achieving a lasting peace in Colombia. Shunning international mediators now might be very detrimental to Colombia’s future and this should be the Colombian President’s main concern.

A now crippled FARC organization is being called upon by a number of well-wishers to lay down its arms and achieve change by entering into a sincere political dialogue and the pursuit of a meaningful compromise. Optimistically, as former Colombian President Andres Pastrana reasons, “leaders of the FARC will come to an understanding that they need to sit down and negotiate.” Meanwhile, newly installed FARC leader Alfonso Cano must come to recognize that the time has come for his group to step up and make a sincere commitment to peace. In the last few days, both Fidel Castro and President Correa of Ecuador have called upon the FARC to release all their hostages and no longer look upon kidnapping as a legitimate revolutionary tactic, even though the Cuban strongman advised FARC not to lay down their arms. As Hugo Chavez stated on June 27th, “the time for guerrilla fronts have passed” and “there should be a greater effort towards peace…from my point of view the time of the guns already passed.” Furthermore, the FARC needs to realize that its armed struggle is not helping to achieve social reform or ameliorate Colombia’s profound economic and agrarian concerns, or deal with the massive problems posed by poverty along with millions of displaced refugees.

Ingrid Betancourt can play a big role in this unfolding script by not resorting to old political veneers, but through seeking after bold new formulas. Perhaps Hugo Chavez could be called upon again to resume his past efforts to negotiate with the FARC rebels in order for them to agree to give up the captives in their hands, and perhaps he would agree to take in thousands of demobilized guerrilla fighters and offer them a temporary safe haven in Venezuela in order to safeguard their future security, which could not be guaranteed in Colombia. Betancourt, too, could call upon regional figures to offer them guarantees as an act of good will, even though this might be illusory. This would be one way that the FARC combatants could be protected against being sitting ducks for further political assaults. The government must ensure the FARC that past bloody incidents such as the extermination of the Patriotic Union during the middle of the 1980’s, when the paramilitary and the military forces annihilated the political party faction of the FARC, will not be repeated.

However, the final analysis is that it must be Uribe who shows that although his military forces recently have achieved a stunning blow against the FARC militants, his finest hour could be his decision not to run again for president, for there have been too many scandals, too many sanctioned human rights violations, and too much bloodshed between the FARC and his government for his bona fides to have credibility. If his commitment to peace in Colombia is true, and if he genuinely wants the best for Colombia’s future, a decision not to seek the presidential office for a third term would be a positive factor in resolving his nation’s persistent woes and would offer an opportunity for Colombia to end the four decade old armed conflict.