THE FIRST WOMAN PRESIDENT OF COLOMBIA?
Ingrid Betancourt once told me that she was going to be president of Colombia and would then invite me to the Casa de Nariño for one of her first interviews. And she’s never doubted that. In fact, during our last conversation just days ago, she assured me: “I will fulfill my promise to you.”
Ingrid and I have been having a conversation now more than 20 years long. I met her January 15 2002 in Miami, shortly after she had launched her campaign for the presidency of Colombia and during a presentation of her book, La Rabia en el Corazón. She was full of energy and dreams. Her language was direct, rebellious and marked by indignation at seeing her country engulfed in violence, poverty and corruption. And even though the leading candidate was none other than the controversial and powerful Alvaro Uribe, the campaign of the then-Senator Betancourt was attracting support from millions of Colombians.
But 38 days after we met, Ingrid was kidnapped by guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. Her book, No Hay Silencio Que No Termine, is a courageous, honest and devastating narration of the horrors and abuses she lived during her six years plus 140 days in captivity.
“I am very tired,” Ingrid told me from Paris shortly after she was rescued in July of 2008 during the daring Operacion Jaque as Uribe served his second presidential term. The only thing she wanted at the time was to spend more time with her children, Lorenzo and Melanie. “I’ve slept very little these days,” she told me in that interview, looking clearly exhausted. But she wanted to talk about the children, despite the enormous fatigue that made it difficult for her to speak in complete sentences. “And when they are sleeping next to me,” she told me, “and I see them sleeping, and I see in their faces what’s left of their being children – they are not children any more, they are adults – that is very beautiful.”
Ingrid spent the next few years traveling between Paris and New York – where the children were living – and later studied theology at Oxford. And all the time she was recovering from the damages and trauma caused by her brutal kidnapping. Few people have explored the issues of personal forgiveness and reconciliation like her. Her TED talk about what she learned in captivity about fear and faith has been watched by nearly one million people.
Because of all of the above, many believed she would never return to politics. But they were wrong. There was always the question of what would have happened in 2002 if Ingrid had not been kidnapped. Would she have beaten Uribe? Would she have become president?
Things have changed a lot in Colombia in the past two decades. Some never forgave Ingrid for threatening to file a lawsuit against the Colombian government seeking $6 million for her kidnapping. “I was not irresponsible,” she said in a radio interview at the time. “I did not want to find myself kidnapped for six years. They took away my bodyguards, and they allowed me to continue.” In fact, Ingrid never filed the lawsuit.
Now let’s jump to 2022. Can Ingrid win the presidency? It’s complicated. First, she would have to win the primary of the Coalicion Centro Esperanza. But nothing has come easy to her.
Before Ingrid’s announcement, leftist candidate Gustavo Petro led some 20 other candidates in the polls. But a poll by the Centro Nacional de Consultoria indicated that 32 percent of the 400 people consulted said they would vote for her. It’s a long way to the first round of the presidential balloting on May 29. And if I am certain of anything, it’s that Ingrid, who found her voice long ago, will not remain silent.
“Why did you go back to Colombia, when you could have had a totally different life,” I asked her recently. “I believe it’s a declaration of love,” she answered. “My father used to say that each of us has a certain vector in life, and that we build it with the conscious and unconscious decisions that we make. And the vector of my life is definitely to serve Colombia.”
Ingrid sees her candidacy as a “different option” between the political extremes represented by candidate Gustavo Petro and former president Alvaro Uribe. “They have turned the country into a kind of battlefield, dominated by corruption,” she told me. And she spoke about the divisions that mark her country. “We Colombians have been divided for decades, killing each other, insulting each other … To change the destiny, the path of Colombia requires uniting Colombians, overcoming that division and those hatreds and fostering love.”
Colombia has never had a woman president. Is now the time? “I believe this is the time of the woman,” she told me. “I believe Colombia needs the vision of a woman to make the big changes, the profound transformations our country needs.”
Ingrid’s critics can say many things, but few people in Colombia have lived – and suffered – as much. That does not necessarily make her the best candidate. But it does give her a perspective and depth that others lack. Who else can say that they were kidnapped for six years, survived and returned to politics. This return requires a big sacrifice at the personal level.
“I feel very happy – very close to my soul – to be here fighting for my dreams and the dreams of Colombians,” she told me at the end of our interview. “Maybe it sounds a bit like a cliché, but if you don’t have faith in the possibility that things can change, life loses a little bit of its meaning.”
Ingrid wants to finish what she started. Her mission is not over. And we cannot forget that in the past, those who bet against her have lost.”