Written by Justin Podur, Originally published in Znet, 2 July 2008
Colombia's most high-profile hostage of the FARC guerrilla group, French-Colombian former Presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt was freed in a military operation by the Colombian armed forces.
This is a major event in Colombian politics and a cause for celebration. Many were worried Ingrid was already dead, but after being freed she is seen smiling and has already spoken out in ways that suggest the despondent videos that were released of her were actually forms of resisting her captors. 14 others were freed, including the 3 American security contractors that were captured and Colombian military and police personnel.
For years, Colombian activists and people wanting change in Colombia have argued that FARC's practice of kidnapping was morally bankrupt and politically destructive. One hopes that FARC will release its remaining hostages rather than continuing this ugly practice any longer.
FARC's leaders have been killed (Raul Reyes, Ivan Rios) or died (Manuel Marulanda). They should have long since handed over all hostages, and one hopes that they do so now. Though the grievances that created the guerrilla, including the violent seizing of peasant lands, remain, the strategic and military balance has changed. No doubt much of FARC's infrastructure and organization remains, but the universal celebration of Ingrid's release only reveals the unpopularity of FARC.
While this is definitely a time for celebration, it is also a dangerous time for Colombia, for several reasons.
Over the past few days, a conflict has been playing out between Colombia's constitutional court and the President, Alvaro Uribe Velez.
The Supreme Criminal Court condemned a Colombian Congress Member, Yidis Medina, for accepting a bribe. She took money to vote in favor of a law permitting the re-election of Uribe. The Supreme Court passed the verdict on to the Constitutional Court, because the matter treats whether Uribe's current term in office is legitimate. The legal change allowing him to run again was now exposed as corrupt. Uribe's response was to discredit the court and to say, if the first election was illegitimate, let the people decide and have another election. Uribe was confident in his own popularity and happy to let the court try to argue that his government would be illegitimate even if it won overwhelmingly in new elections.
Uribe's confidence was boosted in part at least by the Free Trade Agreement with Canada, which will likely lead to an FTA with the US before too long, which was the logic of the Canadian FTA in any case. The regional isolation that came from the Raul Reyes assassination in Ecuador has not translated into unpopularity in Colombia. This popularity has left the Colombian government a free hand to repress peasant movements, as they are doing in Northern Cauca, attacking indigenous people attempting to reclaim territories in the "Liberation for Mother Earth" campaign of the Nasa people.
Uribe was completely confident in his own popularity before Ingrid Betancourt was freed in an operation by his army - an operation that went off flawlessly, with all hostages brought to safety. Now, whether FARC continues on its path of mistakes and moral failures or whether it releases its hostages and comes to the negotiating table, Uribe will benefit politically. The idea that his regime is based on purchased votes, paramilitary violence, selling the country's assets to multinationals, will be lost in tales of the heroism of an operation that bloodlessly saved an innocent and long-suffering hostage. This danger, of what Polo Democratico activists have called a "populist dictatorship", is more acute now than ever.
One hope is that Ingrid herself, like some of the hostages that were freed in rounds of negotiation through Chavez, might provide some perspective in the days to come. Colombian and other leaders, including the Polo Democratico, the indigenous movement, and outsiders like Chavez, have long repudiated kidnapping and have made a lot of sense all along on Colombia's conflict. Their voices shouldn't be drowned out in the dangerous days ahead.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer (currently on the road in Pakistan). He can be reached at email@example.com.