Last Friday, a queuing throng beset the Union’s Goodman Room. The overflowing crowds were pushed into the lobby with an advance on the bar looking imminent. Given the individual standing at the other end, the numbers were not surprising. But nobody anticipated that the crowds would continue, a full two hours in excess of their allotted twenty minutes.
Ingrid Betancourt did not deny a single person a joke, a photo, a conversation or an embrace. It wasn’t the volume of people that was endangering the members’ bar; it was Betancourt’s generosity. When my turn came, I discovered the openness and humanity that perhaps goes a little way to explaining why she gave so much time.
In February 2002, the militant branch of the Columbian Communist party, the FARC, kidnapped her. The FARC were and partially still are what is classed as a violent non-government actor. Their liminal status had led to a partial recognition by certain members of the international community – notably Chavez’s Venezuela. It is an important point to note, for the FARC sees itself not merely as a terrorist group, but as a political entity with aspirations of creating a state. This at any rate has been the official line and the agenda, which has been publicly declared since the 1960s. In these terms, the kidnapping of Betancourt was claimed to be a justifiable political act.
This clarification is important, because a political settlement has not yet been reached in Colombia; there is perhaps still not a clear consensus about who the bad guys are. The corrupt politicians in government? The drug traffickers? The peasant guerillas? Their commanders? The young women for whom “being a guerilla is an upgrade” from what would otherwise be a life of prostitution? Perhaps for this reason, even after her ordeal, when Betancourt was asked on how justice should be served, she hesitated on pronouncing any one approach; saying instead that the justice process “has to be taken case by case”.
After Betancourt’s address I talked to two Colombian gentlemen about their thoughts on what she had said. While they agreed that the treatment she suffered was deplorable, they seemed more hesitant to comment on whether they thought the FARC was an illegitimate political movement or not.
The wounds have clearly not healed, and in describing the conditions of Betancourt’s capture we should remember that we are not talking about a country where one can easily impose binary distinctions. Coming myself from South America, I know how incommensurable a European understanding of politics can be with the reality of Latin America.
In spite of this ambiguity, across several decades in politics Betancourt career witnessed the supposed ideological mandate of the FARC become increasingly murky, mainly due to its affiliation with organized crime. As Betancourt explained, “FARC deviated from a dream to a cartel.” Kidnappings, assassination and improvised explosive devices were (and to a lesser degree still are) the modus operandi. When Betancourt herself was captured, she says the most dangerous moment was minutes after her capture when one of her captors stood on a landmine. The man’s legs were blown to pieces and when he fell to the ground, it was only because of the blood and horror on everybody’s faces that he realised what had just happened.
On the 23 February 2002, Betancourt was running as a candidate for the presidency of Colombia. She had recently formed the Oxygen Green Party – an alternative to the traditional parties. On the campaign trail she decided to visit a mayor who was supporting her party in the demilitarised zone.
The peace process had once again collapsed and President Pastrana had decided to re-engage in military operations. Betancourt and her security escort was therefore told to abort their mission and turn back. On February 23rd 2002, against this backdrop of violence, narco trafficking and revolutionary politics, Betancourt ventured into the jungle.
In the six and half years of captivity that followed, it was a lack of recognition by her captors that set the stage for the psychological ordeal recounted in her memoir Even Silence Has an End. She was, for example, chained to a tree by the neck and then forced to relieve herself in front of a guard when in need of the bathroom. On Friday night, she looked directly into the crowd and said simply, “I could have killed that guy right there”.
Her story is so extraordinary because of how she coped with her situation, but it is not only a story of defiance (although she attempted to escape many times). She speaks of initially being “too overwhelmed to make sense of it”. Consequently, she now wants to “systematise experience into knowledge” and has undertaken a D. Phil in Theology. It struck me that to understand what she was saying about her ordeal, one had to understand what she decided to do after it.
Metaphysics cropped up. She drily noted that in her situation, one understood freedom in the same way you understand oxygen “when your head is in a bucket of water.” She thus defined freedom as “confrontation not reaction” in light of circumstances you cannot
change. Liberation for her came not only in confrontation withher captors, but also herself. Her guards were “trained in being cruel”, to create dehumanising humiliations. She remembered,
“I thought, I don’t want to feel that hate…not to allow myself to hate these people.” This refusal became a way of reclaiming agency under imposed conditions: “liberation through forgiveness.”
But from where did she draw the strength to rise above the cruelty? Betancourt’s paradoxical battle was that she had to resist the attempts to reduce her self-identity (being identified by a number for example) and yet also maintain the power to forgive – precisely so that she might maintain her threatened sense of self. Something prevailed in spite of the dehumanisation, so that she might then regain herself through forgiveness.
This something was what she claims “transcended” her captors. Staring into the abyss, she contemplated death as a form of freedom. Seemingly, however, the abyss did not stare back – “There is something in us, you are driven by this – the certainty you will make it…the light at the end of the tunnel was myself.”
Speaking about the troubles in Colombia, I couldn’t help but notice that the notion of recognition recurred in different forms. Concerning the victims of the civil war, she says, “We need to understand the pain of others.” Of the young men and women who join the FARC, she thinks “[they] are struggling to have a purpose…in a country that has no place for them.” Having suffered the horror of being denied her identity and yet responding by affirming it over and against those who threatened it, she of all people knows the significance of being recognised and recognising others.
In 2008, Betancourt and her fellow hostages were escorted onto a helicopter by their guards. They were told that they were being moved as part of negotiations with the government. In fact the Colombian secret service had infiltrated the FARC’s command structure and had arranged a fake transportation. Once on board they were told “Estan libres.”
One of the first things she did after liberation was claim compensation from the Colombian government. In Colombia, this move produced an outcry, with politicians denouncing her “ingratitude.” Yet this appears shortsighted in light of her explanation – “We needed to feel they understood the pain.” A form of recognition was required.
Betancourt has not since returned to politics and she seemed unclear when I pressed her about whether she wanted to return to the fray. But her comments on recognition make a lot of sense, in light of the other things she had to say about politics. When asked, in reference to politics, “What hope is there for us?” Betancourt answered that politics is everything; politics is “on which side you lay your toothbrush” and that it is something in which “we have to participate ourselves.” There was a real sense from her that one cannot be passive, one must take a part in determining the change one wants – “We have to be consistent with what we want.”
Yet neither did Betancourt talk about politics as being necessarily combative or aggressive in saying, “We have to make politics a dignifying experience.” It was very humbling to see a person who, having once been denied some very basic dignities, now advocates them wholeheartedly for her political opponents.
Indeed when someone like Betancourt says “people who oppose your views are the ones who improve your thought,” the importance of showing respect, openness and humility take on a whole new meaning and significance. Someone who had to fight so dearly for her own dignity and self-worth perhaps knows better than most why we should extend these values to others, even those with whom we disagree. Once again, the importance of recognition seems key.
“The eye does not discourse itself, except by reflection”, Brutus says to Cassius. Deprived of a mirror and presented with death, Betancourt found an exception to discourse her identity – her existence. On Friday night, she took the time to chat with everyone, recognising and engaging everybody who came to her.
If an interview is a discourse of reflection, Betancourt is Brutus’s exception; it was hard to know what she wanted written about her. Though she was reflecting for others, it was not to seek her own image. This selflessness after her fight for a sense of self was what made her a truly admirable figure. Her patience, graciousness and respect for others is difficult to adequately reflect in writing, but it is perhaps what we should all try to mirror