Colombia vote: Former FARC hostages run for Congress

Six former FARC hostages – each held for years by the leftist rebel group – are running for Congress in Sunday's Colombia vote. Voters are choosing 102 senators and 166 representatives in the legislative elections.

Carlos Duran/Newscom
Colombian candidate to Senate and former FARC hostage, Clara Rojas, next to her son Emmanuel, arrives to cast her vote in Bogota, Colombia.

After spending long years chained to trees and at the mercy of leftist rebels, most of Colombia’s former FARC hostages swore off politics when they were unilaterally released two years ago, saying they would dedicate themselves to their families and to making up for lost time.

But six of the former political hostages of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have plunged back into politics, seeking seats in Congress in Sunday’s legislative elections. Some of the former hostages say they feel better prepared to represent voters after their experience with the “other Colombia.” Others say they’re just trying to pick up their lives where they left off.

Clara Rojas, who was campaign manager of then-presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt when the two were kidnapped in 2002, says she decided to run for a Senate seat in part to put the trauma of her kidnapping behind her. “I wanted to leave behind the role of victim, and to see what I can do to contribute to the country,” she says.

Where is Ingrid Betancourt?

Absent from the current race is Ms. Betancourt herself who many had speculated would make her political comeback in this year’s elections after being rescued along with 14 other hostages in a military intelligence operation in 2008. She is reportedly living between New York and Paris, writing a book about her ordeals.

Colombia, which remains mired in a four-decade-old conflict, will elect 102 senators and 166 representatives Sunday in an election that will also serve as a key test of political forces ahead of May presidential elections.

President Álvaro Uribe was barred from trying to seek a third term, leaving the presidential race wide open with six different candidates standing for the first round. The Conservative Party and Green Party candidates will be defined Sunday in open primaries.

Politics is an inherently dangerous business in Colombia and though election observers said the risk of election violence has dropped, the FARC and paramilitary groups still pose a latent threat in nearly 40 percent of the country.

Safer, but still dicey

In February, five people died when the FARC apparently tried to kidnap a gubernatorial candidate far-flung Guaviare province. And the Army last weekend said it had foiled a bomb attack on Orlando Beltrán, a former FARC hostage who is seeking to reclaim his seat in House of Representatives as an independent. “I’ve just emerged from seven years of torture in the jungles of Colombia and now they want to kill me,” he told local radio.

Ms. Rojas, who famously gave birth during her six-year captivity and only recovered her son Emmanuel after her release in 2008, says that despite the dangers, her family has been highly supportive of her decision. Emmanuel, 5, even helps her hand out pamphlets, she says. “He’s just beginning to understand about politics,” she says.

Candidates say captivity helped them

When Luis Eladio Pérez, who was a senator of the Liberal Party when he was kidnapped in 2001, was released in February 2008, he flatly rejected the thought of ever returning to politics. “But as time went by I understood that I had to participate in politics to try to help end the conflict in this country,” he says. Mr. Pérez is running for senator as an independent.

Like most of the former hostages, Pérez says his experience in captivity made him more attuned to the needs of Colombian voters and better prepared him to represent them. “Having understood the other reality of the country has made me more sensitive to the drama that millions of Colombians live,” he says. Pérez spent much of his captivity with Betancourt drafting a 190-point political platform to reform the country once they got out. Perez says his proposals in Congress take up many of the ideas they discussed in the jungles of Colombia.

Sigifredo López was the sole survivor of 12 regional lawmakers kidnapped in a bold 2002 FARC raid on Cali's provincial assembly. His colleagues were killed by their captors in 2007. He was freed in early 2009. "God kept me alive for a reason,” he says. “I believe that reason is to contribute to reconciliation in this country.” López is running for the Senate as a Liberal Party candidate.

Using the 'kidnap card'?

Beatriz Gil, a political analyst with the Congreso Visible congressional watchdog group, says the former hostages could have a good showing because Colombian voters are often moved by emotions.

“People remember them from the live television coverage of their releases. The votes they get will most likely be emotional votes,” she says, adding however that that fact should not discredit them as politicians. “After what they’ve lived, they could add a new vision to politics in Colombia."

It's a factor López is touting.

“I know how the actors think, on all sides [of the conflict],” says López. "I understand the interests that are in play.”

Pérez says he has not used the “kidnap card” in his campaign, though at rallies people often ask him for detail of what it was like to live in the jungle all those years. “I want people to vote for me out of conviction, not compassion,” he says.

However, former lawmaker Jorge Eduardo Géchem, who spent six years in the hands of the FARC before being released in 2008 decided to remind voters of his condition as a former hostage. The slogan of his campaign for the House of Representatives for the pro-Uribe “U” Party is: “If I got out, Colombia can too.”

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