BOGOTÁ — Ingrid Betancourt, a former congresswoman who was held hostage by guerrillas and came to symbolize both the brutality of Colombia’s long conflict and the country’s reconciliation efforts, will run for president, she said Tuesday.
Betancourt enters a very open presidential campaign at a time when Colombia is at a decisive political and social crossroads.
When she was kidnapped 20 years ago, Betancourt was campaigning for the same position. Now, she said, the country faces the same “corrupt system” and “political machines” that she fought back then.
“Today I am here to finish what I started,” she said on a podium at a hotel in downtown Bogotá, the country’s capital, accompanied by her allies.
Betancourt, who was captured in 2002 and held for more than six years by the country’s largest guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, announced her candidacy for elections in May as the country faces daunting challenges.
After more than 50 years of war, the government and the rebel group, known as the FARC, signed a peace agreement in 2016. But since then, a wave of other armed groups has broken into the void and continued to fight.
Violence has increased in some rural areas and critics have blamed the government for not investing enough to tackle the inequality and poverty that have helped fuel the war, as it had pledged to do in the peace deal.
Many Colombians are fed up with the political status quo, a sentiment that erupted in the public sphere in May of last year, when thousands of people took to the streets for more than a month to protest hardship only made worse by the pandemic.
After her years of captivity – in which she was sometimes chained – Betancourt has supported the peace process and has also criticized the FARC, becoming a symbol of the national attempts to recognize the costs of the war, but also to overcome it.
Sergio Guzmán, an analyst from Bogotá, called Betancourt the country’s “reconciliation candidate.”
In an interview with the Times last year, Betancourt called the peace agreement “a window, a generational opportunity, to get out of the violent madness in which we have lived all our lives.”
The question, Guzmán said, is whether that is what Colombians want.
“All of our choices have been fear, hope and hate,” he continued. “No election has ever been contested on the basis of compassion and reconciliation.”
There is widespread discontent with the current president, Iván Duque, who is a product of the country’s traditional right-wing political power, while a left-wing populist, Gustavo Petro, is leading the polls amid a wave of leftist opposition to those in the power that spreads throughout Latin America.
“Can Ingrid become a balm for those predominant negative emotions that we are feeling right now?” Guzmán said. “I do not know. That is one of the things that his candidacy will tell us.”
But to gain traction with voters, he said, “you have to sell the idea that reconciliation is better than populism.”
Although Betancourt is widely known throughout the country, a victory in May is by no means certain.
At this moment there are more than 20 candidates for the presidency, and most of the best known are grouped into three coalitions: one from the left, headed by Petro; one from the center, to which Betancourt joins; and one from the right, whose members consider themselves the standard-bearers of the current government.
To reach the May elections, Betancourt would have to win the March primaries, in which he would compete with other candidates from the center, such as Alejandro Gaviria, former Minister of Health and until recently rector of a prestigious university.
Guzmán pointed out that Betancourt joined the campaign late in the electoral calendar and described his candidacy as “a desperate measure.”
Colombia has never had a woman in the presidency, and Betancourt is one of four candidates from the three main coalitions.
The most prominent candidate so far has been Francia Márquez, a young Afro-Colombian politician and environmental activist who is also a victim of the war.
Márquez, who has joined the coalition on the left, has distinguished herself not only by her identity—Colombian politics has been dominated by wealthy white men—but by her outspoken adherence to feminist politics and her willingness to criticize Petro.
Betancourt is the daughter of a Colombian politician and diplomat, and later obtained French nationality through her first husband.
In 2002, after passing through Congress, Betancourt launched the presidential campaign as a member of the Oxygen Green Party, a young political movement with a pacifist, environmentalist and anti-corruption philosophy. On February 23, 2002, when she was going to a campaign rally in the city of San Vicente del Caguán, she was detained at a roadblock and taken hostage by the FARC.
During her years of captivity in the jungle, she was brutalized and repeatedly tried to escape, experiences she recounted in her book There is no silence that does not end.
She was rescued by the Colombian government and, over the years, has become the most well-known victim in the country. But she has also been the target of criticism: from those who say she has neglected poorer and lesser-known victims, and from others who have criticized her for seeking compensation from the Colombian government after her captivity and rescue.
Betancourt has lived in France for years and returned to Colombia just a few months ago. In his campaign speech, he directly addressed criticism that the move was designed for personal political gain.
“I have come back in search of the greatest political benefit,” he said, “that we all have a true democracy.”
His campaign announcement says little about his political proposals, beyond repeated promises to fight corruption and address the impact of violence in the country.
“My story is the story of all Colombians,” he said.
In a country of more than 50 million inhabitants, nine million are registered with the government as victims of the conflict.
“While the FARC enslaved me and my companions, the drug cartels, the violent and the corrupt politicians have been enslaving each one of you,” he continued.
“We are going to get out of this mafia, lying, violent culture and we are going to learn to be free citizens again.”
Sofia Villamil collaborated with the report.
Julie Turkewitz is bureau chief for the Andes, which covers Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Suriname and Guyana. Before moving to South America, he was a national affairs correspondent and covered the western United States. @julieturkewitz