Colombian ex-captives consider politics

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The World

BOGOTA, Colombia — During nearly seven years as guerrilla hostages, Ingrid Betancourt and Luis Eladio Perez dreamed of returning home and reentering Colombian politics.

Betancourt, a one-time presidential candidate, and Perez, a former senator, killed time by listening to radio news programs, analyzing current events and using stacks of notebook paper to draw up a 190-point plan for governing Colombia.

Now that Betancourt and the rest of the country’s political hostages have been liberated — the final hostage was released Feb. 5 — some are using their notoriety as gritty survivors to run in next year’s presidential and congressional elections.

But experts question whether they have overcome the psychological scars of their hellish ordeals. It’s also unclear whether their years in captivity improved or impaired their grasp of national issues.

“To think that they can save the country after everything they’ve gone through is unrealistic,” said Olga Gomez, who heads the Free Country Foundation, a Bogota organization that counsels former hostages.

“It takes them many years to rebuild their lives,” she added. By immediately returning to the campaign trail, Gomez said, former hostages “are denying themselves this possibility.”

Over the past decade, dozens of politicians were abducted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the nation’s largest guerrilla group which has been fighting since the early 1960s. FARC used the hostages as pawns: The group tried to force the Bogota government to trade hostages for imprisoned rebel commanders.

But Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who was first sworn in in 2002, refused to be blackmailed. His army dealt FARC a series of devastating military blows, including a spectacular, Entebbe-style rescue operation last year that freed Betancourt.

Realizing that its kidnapping policy had backfired, FARC began releasing political hostages last year. The final two were former Meta state governor Alan Jara and former state legislator Sigifredo Lopez. Jara was released Feb. 3, and Lopez was turned over to representatives of the Red Cross Feb. 5.

For a variety of reasons, many of the freed prisoners are throwing themselves back into politics despite the fact that they were initially grabbed by the guerrillas due to their status as politicians.

Some face financial pressures and have no other marketable skills. Others believe that reactivating their political careers will serve as a kind of therapy.

“For my mental health, experts recommended that I stay busy,” said Jorge Eduardo Gechem, who was dragged off a highjacked commuter plane by rebel kidnappers in 2002, liberated last year, and is now running for his old seat in the Colombian Senate.

Like Sen. John McCain — the former Navy flyer who was tortured for years at Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War — some of the former political prisoners are viewed as heroes. Potential voters are also drawn to them because during their years in captivity they dealt with wretched food, housing and medical treatment — conditions that poor Colombians grapple with every day. 

During a recent luncheon for Orlando Beltran, a former hostage hoping to regain his old job in the House of Representatives, one invited guest claimed that the experience would make the politician more responsive.

“He’s lived the way we live,” said Pedro Vargas, a security guard who earns about $250 per month. “I think every politician should have this experience.”

Before he was kidnapped, Perez, the former senator, said he paid little attention to Colombia’s impoverished outback because there were few votes in that area to harvest. On campaign trips he would hand out bottles of rum and soccer balls, and then would return to Bogota and forget about the people’s problems.

Upon his release last year, Perez publicly apologized for his behavior. He is now working with a group of centrist politicians and contemplating another run for office.

Still, emerging from captivity is no guarantee of survival in Colombia’s political jungle. Fernando Araujo, a former government minister, became a national hero when he escaped from a FARC camp. Disoriented, he wandered through the mountains for five days before stumbling upon an army patrol.

Named foreign minister by President Uribe, Araujo was widely viewed as an odd choice because he had been largely out of touch with international affairs during his six years in captivity. After a series of verbal gaffes, Araujo was replaced last year.

Former hostages “are neither superheroes nor handicapped people,” said Araujo, who plans to run for president next year.

Despite obsessing about making another bid for the presidency while she was in chains, Betancourt, the most famous of the ex-hostages, has avoided politics since her release and is writing her memoirs.

“She is on literary retreat,” her spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail. “Her only plan is to fully dedicate herself to her book.” 

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