In Colombia, a mother presses for her hostage daughter's release
Yolanda Pulecio's relentless campaign to release her daughter and others kidnapped by rebels in Colombia has made her an international goodwill ambassador
Bogotá, Colombia — For anyone who knew Ingrid Betancourt as a fiery politician constantly challenging the status quo, a recent video of the French-Colombian hostage is disturbing. In the brief recording, she sits on a makeshift bench in a jungle setting, her eyes downcast, her hands in her lap. She is gaunt and listless. She never looks at the camera and she does not speak.
"Life here is not life," wrote Ms. Betancourt in a 12-page letter to her mother, Yolanda Pulecio. "I have lost my will. I don't want anything because here ... the only response to any request is 'No.' "
Betancourt was running for president when she was kidnapped in February 2002 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is holding at least 45 other high-profile hostages, including three Americans, as political pawns in their fight against the government.
Partly because of her dual nationality and partly because of her mother's incessant campaigning, Betancourt has become the international symbol for the hostages. And her mother, Mrs. Pulecio, has become an international goodwill ambassador for their families.
Shuttling from one world capital to the next, Pulecio has met with dozens of presidents in an effort to drum up international pressure on the Colombian government to make concessions to the rebels for humanitarian reasons. She has just returned from Buenos Aires where she was a special guest at last week's swearing-in ceremony of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. On the sidelines of the ceremony, Pulecio met with the leaders of Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, who all called for the Colombian government to step up efforts to secure the release of the hostages.
Her efforts have been championed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been personally involved in efforts to free the hostages since he came to power in May. Last week, he issued a rare televised appeal, speaking directly to guerrilla chief Manuel Marulanda to free Betancourt as a humanitarian gesture. "You must save a woman in danger of death," he said.
"Thank God [Ingrid] has French citizenship," says Pulecio, sitting on the edge of a sofa in her elegantly appointed Bogotá apartment. "If my daughter had not become a symbol no one would be talking about this issue. It is the only positive thing about her kidnapping."
On Sunday, Pulecio and the relatives of other hostages participated in a march through Bogotá to call attention to the plight of the hostages. But only about 300 people showed up, underscoring what Pulecio bitterly observes as a general lack of compassion by Colombians for the hostages.
Jo Rosano, mother of Marc Gosalves, one of the three Americans being held by the FARC, says she is grateful for Pulecio's efforts and Sarkozy's involvement. "But I hope the French president doesn't forget the other hostages," she says in a telephone interview from her home in Connecticut.
Negotiations repeatedly failed
Most of the high-profile hostages are Army soldiers or police agents captured in guerrilla attacks when the FARC were at the peak of their power in the late 1990s. The rebels say they want to swap the hostages for 500 guerrilla prisoners in Colombian jails. Repeated attempts at negotiations between the rebels and the hard-line government of President Alvaro Uribe, whose own father died in a botched kidnap attempt, have failed.
The latest effort, spearheaded by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, came to an abrupt halt last month when Mr. Uribe "fired" him as mediator, though families of the hostages say a swap was closer than ever.
"One day we wake up filled with hope, dreaming of how we are going to hug her and give her all our love," Pulecio says. "And the next day comes disappointment, and it's usually because of Uribe."
Her abrasiveness toward a president who enjoys approval ratings of over 70 percent does not necessarily win her points with Colombians but she doesn't care. She's angry.
Pulecio's coffee table is scattered with different editions of Betancourt's memoir, published before her kidnapping under the French title, "La Rage au Coeur," (A Rage in the Heart). "That is what I feel," she says. "I feel that rage in my heart, toward the guerrillas, but mostly toward Uribe."
Pulecio's diplomatic efforts appear to be paying off, however. Despite having vowed repeatedly never to cede territory to the rebels, Uribe early this month made a public offer to the FARC of a 150-square kilometer demilitarized zone for 30 days in any sparsely populated area of Colombia to negotiate and carry out the exchange. The FARC, which had demanded an 800-square kilometer area, have yet to respond.
But Pulecio does not believe Uribe will actually go through with the exchange, accusing him of playing politics. "Every time there is some movement and an agreement seems possible, he pulls out the rug from under us," she says.
Friends in adversity
Despite a language gap, Pulecio and Ms. Rosano share mutual respect and admiration. In the most recent proof that their son and daughter are still alive – videos and letters seized by the government late last month – it is clear their children have also become friends, though they were separated into different camps.
For Pulecio, Betancourt's letter was both a great gift and a source of anguish. She carries a blurry photocopy she was given by the government in her purse. "That's my daughter there, with all her tenderness and all her love,' Pulecio says, her voice breaking.
Pulecio was moved to know that her daughter hears a national radio program called "Voices of kidnapping," where relatives can talk to their loved ones held in FARC camps. "I tell her about my day, I tell her about her children, about the life of [Betancourt's sister] Astrid, everything I can."
In the letter, Betancourt asks her mom to urge her siblings in France to send her messages thrice weekly. "This is the only information that is vital, wonderful, essential," Betancourt wrote. "The rest doesn't matter to me anymore."
Pulecio is worried about her daughter's loss of spirit. "I feel like she has very little strength to go on so that is why now the call [for everything to be done for her release] is so urgent," says Pulecio, who has retaken the political stage after retiring from an activist life that included a brief stint as a senator. But she says, "I don't act as a politician, I act as a mother."