Colombia's kidnapped candidate

Ingrid Betancourt, held hostage by FARC rebels, will be on the country's May 26 presidential ballot.

Shortly before she was kidnapped by leftist guerrillas, Ingrid Betancourt was asked who she admired. She said "Joan of Arc."

To her supporters, Ms. Betancourt is a woman of similar courage and unflagging strength. But in making the comparison, she was also cognizant of Joan of Arc's fate. "I know I could be killed anywhere, anytime. But I am not afraid to die for my beliefs," said the Colombian senator and presidential candidate in a Monitor interview just 10 days before Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas kidnapped her.

Prior to her abduction on Feb. 23, Betancourt held a meeting with FARC guerrilla negotiators in Los Pozos, a hamlet in the heart El Caguán - the 16,000- square-mile zone that President Andrés Pastrana demilitarized in 1998 as an incentive for peace. "You are letting the drug money corrupt you just as it has corrupted the political system," Betancourt told the FARC leaders. The meeting marked the final chapter of a peace process that collapsed Feb. 20 when rebels hijacked a passenger airplane and kidnapped a senator on board. Pastrana then ordered the Army to retake El Caguán, which is also the center of Colombia's drug trade.

Betancourt's status is uncertain. She and some 750 other hostages - including four members of Congress and the senator - are bargaining chips for the FARC, who want to trade them for high-ranking guerrilla leaders currently in prison. In a recent CNN interview, FARC gave the government one year to comply with its demands, or else it will take "appropriate actions." It did not explain what these actions might be.

The renewal of violence and hostage-taking provided the backdrop for Sunday's congressional elections. Armed guards protected several polling places, and despite isolated violent incidents, voting went smoothly nationwide. Colombia's voters rejected the country's two main political parties - Pastrana's Conservative Party and the Liberal Party - which lost a significant number of seats in the election. Observers say this paves the way for a more hardline candidate than the progressive Betancourt in May's presidential election.

Betancourt spent most of her youth in Paris, living a privileged life far away from the troubles of Colombia. After graduating from the prestigious École des Sciences Politiques, she married a French diplomat and gave birth to a boy and a girl. This was the late 1980s, a time when drug barons were waging a brutal war against the Colombian state.

The conflict eventually led to the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán, a widely popular and charismatic presi- dential candidate who supported the extradition of the drug barons to the United States. For most Colombians, Galán represented hope for real change. His death plunged Colombia into despair. But it also prompted the 29-year- old Betancourt to return to Colombia to follow the footsteps of her parents, both of whom had been involved in Colombian politics. "My father inculcated in me a deep sense of duty and integrity. I felt I owed a debt to my country," Betancourt explained.

Her political career takes off

She secured a job at the Ministry of Finance, but soon became frustrated watching unscrupulous politicians hijack and mangle sound proposals and reforms. "I concluded that in order to effect positive change, I had to be in politics, where the real power is," she said. So at 33, she ran for a seat in Colombia's House of Representatives.

In a country where vote-buying and electoral manipulation are widespread, Betancourt ran her campaign on a shoestring budget and without a political machine.

She relied instead on a clever campaign that underscored her pledge to fight corruption in politics: she handed out condoms at traffic lights and told drivers, "Corruption is like AIDS, protect yourself." Her gambit paid off. She was elected with a record number of votes.

Her campaign promises were tested early when evidence surfaced that members of the Cali drug cartel had financed the campaign of Ernesto Samper, who was elected president in 1994. According to Betancourt, Mr. Samper's opposition to Colombia's extradition treaty with the US was the cartel's expected quid pro quo, a view shared by many in Colombia and abroad.

Betancourt fought against efforts to derail the investigation into Samper's campaign finances and went on a hunger strike to protest her exclusion from an investigative commission that was staffed mainly with loyal Samper supporters.

She also uncovered evidence, including checks and receipts, suggesting that a large number of her peers were on the payroll of the drug lords. Colombia's Congress eventually cleared Samper of any wrongdoing.

Betancourt's reputation as an independent and incorruptible politician has won her enemies and exacted a great personal cost. She was forced to send her children to New Zealand to live with her ex-husband to protect them from death threats.

Betancourt rankles traditionals

This maverick attitude rankled many traditional politicians and middle-class Colombians. "She is a little princess who abandons her palace in France to come and rid Colombia of the baddies," says a former parliamentarian who requested anonymity. "According to her, there are 40 million bandits and only one hero: Ingrid Betancourt," he says.

In polls, Betancourt has less than 1 percent support for her presidential bid. Her current husband, however, has vowed to continue her campaign.

A law passed late last year allows candidates being held hostage to remain on the ballot, though none of the five currently in captivity was reelected.

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