Will Colombia's Ingrid Betancourt run for president?
The Franco-Colombian politician was freed from a jungle rebel camp last week. Now Bogotá's buzzing with talk about her political future.
Bogotá, Colombia — When she was rescued last week, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt brought back a few mementos from her six years as a hostage of Colombia's leftist rebels: a rosary she made from buttons and string, a dictionary the guerrillas had finally allowed her to have, and a 190-point plan to govern the country.
While Ms. Betancourt is feted across France – her second homeland – after the dramatic July 2 operation that freed her and 14 other hostages, the political scene in Colombia is abuzz with speculation about whether the once fiery senator will make another run for president.
Though initially after her rescue Betancourt said that the presidency seemed "very distant", she has not ruled it out and political analysts have already placed her on the list of possible candidates for the 2010 elections.
"Ingrid Betancourt's reappearance on the scene changes the political chessboard even if she hasn't made clear her intentions," says political analyst Pedro Medellín.
She certainly has been preparing for a presidential bid. In the black backpack she slung over her shoulders when she was rescued, Betancourt had a thick stack of lined notebook paper tied with a string. In that bundle, she and former senator Luís Eladio Pérez had laid out a 190-point government program.
"Almost every day we would sit and analyze events we'd hear about on the radio and ask ourselves, if we ever find ourselves in power what would we do about such and such an issue," says Mr. Pérez, whose own copy of the program was confiscated by rebels when he was released unilaterally by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in February.
The plan includes points on everything from housing programs to how to finish off the FARC. Often, Betancourt would discuss specific issues with the soldiers and police officers, from lower-income families, held hostage with her.
Initially after her release, Betancourt said she favored giving President Álvaro Uribe a chance at running for a third term leading to speculation that she might join Mr. Uribe's government. As in recent days, however, she has distanced herself from the president, laying out differences in their approaches to government. She says favors social investment over anti-FARC military investment, for instance.
Pérez says that once Betancourt is ready, they plan to create an alternative, independent political movement.
"Undoubtedly she will be an important player," says Jorge Londoño, head of the Invamer-Gallup polling company. "She is someone with a very high public recognition, it remains to be seen how she uses that now that she's free."
Opinion polls taken after her rescue show that she has an approval rating ranging from 71 percent to 83 percent. "If she can capitalize on the favorability and turn sympathy for her suffering into political support for her proposals, she could consolidate her political project by the 2010 elections," says Pérez.
But both the left and the right already are courting her. The center-left Polo Democratico Alternativo as well as Uribe's own "U" party have said they would welcome her into their movements.
Uribe has yet to say whether he plans to seek a third term in 2010, which would require a constitutional amendment. If he does not run, Betancourt would top the list of voter favorites with a solid 31 percent, according to one poll.
That's far higher than when she actually was a presidential candidate in 2002. At the time she was taken hostage in the middle of her campaign as an independent candidate, only 0.8 percent of voters intended to vote for her.
What hurt her then was an arrogant and disdainful attitude in her anticorruption campaigns that had turned many Colombians off, says Pérez. "She made herself out to be the one pure and clean politician while the rest of us were corrupt rats," says Pérez, who sat with Betancourt in the Senate before their respective kidnappings. "[Now] she is more tolerant and more humble," he says.
Betancourt herself acknowledged the change. "In a kidnapping, you leave behind a lot of your baggage, like arrogance and stubbornness," she said at a news conference.
"Colombians see her differently today," says Mr. Medellín.
And while public office may be in her near future, today, Betancourt says her top concern is the freedom of the remaining hostages.
FARC has been holding what they consider to be "swappable" hostages as bargaining chips to try to win concessions from the government, including a haven for the release of jailed rebel cadres. Just over a year ago, the rebels held more than 60 such hostages, but after a series of escapes, rebel blunders, unilateral releases, and the rescue, only 27 "swappable" hostages remain. Relatives of the remaining hostages say they are counting on Betancourt to keep the pressure on to seek their release. "Ingrid will not leave us alone," said one woman at a weekly protest Tuesday in Bogotá.