Ingrid Betancourt was a presidential candidate for Colombia in 2002 when she was captured by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). She then spent the next six and a half years as a prisoner in various parts of the Amazonian jungle, despite several attempts at escape. Some of this time involved marching through the jungle for months at a time to keep ahead of the Colombian Army. At other times Ingrid was chained by her neck to a tree. The fight for the freedom of Ingrid and her fellow prisoners went global, with Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela emerging as key players. In 2008, Ingrid and her companions were rescued by a military mission that took months of planning and a major infiltration into the FARC network. It was a rescue that would seem far-fetched if it occurred in an action film. Ingrid has taken a moment of her freedom to talk to Tasmanian Times about her experience, politics and philosophy.
Ingrid greets me with a warm, friendly smile and I welcome her to Hobart. It is a stunning autumn day. Ingrid beams as she remarks on how beautiful Hobart is, looking up to the Mountain from the waterfront. We find a quiet spot and begin our discussion…
James: Ingrid welcome to Tasmania! Is this your first time here?
James: Are you aware that we claim to be the birth place of the Green Party?
Ingrid: Yes, of course. It´s a very mythical place, and actually the first meeting of the Greens was here in the City Hall (Town Hall) where I´m going to be talking tonight. So it will be a very, you know, emotional moment for me I think.
James: And you´ve known Bob Brown for a long time?
Ingrid: Yes, because we were together at the Global Greens Conference in 2001.
James: Regarding your six and a half years as a hostage, are you now able to lead a ´´normal´´ life?
Ingrid: I think I have had difficulties in settling down. I have been a nomad for the three years since my freedom. But because also I want to be where the people I love are and they are not in the same place, so it doesn´t make the task easier. But, I mean, I think I have a normal life in the sense that I um… I have normal days and I enjoy life. In that sense it´s quite normal.
James: What would you say is the biggest difference in yourself, between how you were before you were taken hostage and how you are now?
Ingrid: There are many differences. I think that the relationship with time changed, the priorities in the day, um… I would say there is more control over time issues, patience and things like this. But I mean, I think that we are always in the process of learning. Perhaps the major difference is that now I´m aware of things that I want to achieve, like changes that I want to see happening in my behavior or in my reactions, or how I control my emotions, and it´s always a learning process. So, every day I learn something.
James: That was very evident in the book. You were able to see such direct impacts from every little part of your behavior, even things you probably didn´t realise you were doing, or things that weren´t even the case, but you could see directly its impact on the people around you.
James: Obviously since you got your freedom you would have had contact with some fellow prisoners, such as Lucho who you became very close with. I am interested to know if you have had any contact with members of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) who held you prisoner for so long?
Ingrid: I had contact with a guerrilla who helped one of my companions to escape. He asked for asylum in France. So I was involved in helping him get to France. But I haven´t had any contact with the commanders, the ones that are in jail or other people. I wouldn´t mind to have contact with them. I mean if I lived in Colombia perhaps I would visit them, I mean, I don´t have any resentment or anything.
James: I sensed that you almost felt sorry for some of them, particularly those who had been dragged into it by poverty…
Ingrid: Oh yes, definitely yes. Even to the commanders, because I think it´s a very sad destiny being all your life in this war and then end up killed or captured. I mean what a sad fate.
James: Now when you were a prisoner you found strength by internalising, by meditating, particularly with the Bible and by weaving. Do you still practice meditation in some form or another?
Ingrid: Yes, yes. I think I meditate every day.
James: In what form?
Ingrid: Well, it´s part of my routine, when I end the day I take time to just think of what has been that day that has just finished, and there are always things that are interesting to analyse, things that you could have said differently or things that you didn´t really understand from people, but when you think again maybe you understand what happened or the reaction of the person may have been something you could have foreseen. So meditation is very important as a spiritual exercise, I would say, more than a religious one.
James: Now I´m going to read two quotes from your book about the jungle of Colombia. The first one is:
…and life held its breath. On such evenings the sounds of the forests were magical, thousands of jingling bells would begin to chime cheerfully.
And the second is upon seeing an area of deforestation:
Helpless spectators to an ecological disaster no one cared about, we crossed the ravaged space as if we were the sole survivors of a nuclear war.
Did your experience change how you feel about the natural world, by spending so long trapped within it and removed from the urban world that we are so used to?
Ingrid: Yes definitely, of course. But not for good or for bad. The relationship became much more intimate. The thing is sometimes the jungle would be a captor, an enemy, it was my jail, I couldn´t escape. It was difficult to go through that vegetation, it was scary, and it was aggressive. Sometimes it was the opposite, it was my protector, it was the space where I could hide. It kept me from being recaptured by the FARC, by the rebels. It was… but I think that the more I was in the jungle, I mean it didn´t happen at the beginning, later on I had this impression that the jungle had… invaded me, inside of myself. Like I would think that I would have the same pace, there is a rhythm when you are surrounded by nature and there is no presence of humans. Or even with humans too, but when there is this intimate relationship with the natural world you feel like you are part of it.
It´s kind of strange but this connection really exists. And so in a way you copy the rhythm of things. It´s like if you were able to speak another language. Sometimes I think when you express yourself in a different language there´s another identity, or another part of your personality that comes out. You´re not the same in French as you are in English and as you are in Spanish. But again you´re not the same when you are in the jungle as when you are out of the jungle. It´s another language in you that speaks. It´s very powerful.
James: Did it make you feel more human?
James: I guess to get back to what we are biologically. In biological terms it´s not so long ago we lived more like this…
Ingrid: Yes, exactly. But I think there is a balance between human nature and nature… that you can reach. Of course we have um… I mean um… nature is something that is alive, but at the same time you cannot really communicate, in verbal terms, but then the need of communication comes in another way. So that´s why it´s very interesting.
James: Do you think the international attention on your plight helped Colombia politically?
Ingrid: Well… I wish it had, but I don´t think so. I think it helped me and my fellow hostages to get back alive, but I think that in Colombia we are far from having done the process of understanding what we are going through. There is this… I think sometimes we Colombians have a very stone heart… we don´t want to get involved with the suffering of others. We just want to ignore what´s happening because we want to just live in our comfort zone. The problem in Colombia is that those who live in comfort are very few, it´s a very small minority, and the big part of the population are the ones left behind. With no name, no identity, when they are murdered they don´t even exist, statistics do. There´s no law to protect them, they don´t have access to justice, they are always the ones… the victims, and um… the Colombians who have power, economical power, social power, political power, just… are oblivious to what´s happening to the majority of the country.
I mean we have six million displaced people in Colombia. It´s enormous, it´s the highest number of displaced people in the world, for a country, more than in African countries even. So I mean this rings a bell, there´s a really deep social crisis, and we´re just pretending it doesn´t exist.
James: I recently spoke to Enrique Peñalosa, in Hobart actually, and I wondered if you have any relationship with today´s Colombian Green Party?
Ingrid: Well, actually, you and I were talking about Lucho, he is very active in the Green Party. So it´s through him that I have my connection with the Green Party, so I know them well.
James: It was very interesting talking to Enrique while he was here for a planning conference.
Ingrid: Yes, he did an amazing job while he was Mayor of Bogota and I think that he is running again?
James: Yes he is. Now… the Green Party is quite strong in Colombia and in Brazil. Can you see it spreading throughout Latin America?
Ingrid: Yes, and I hope that it will spread, but I would like that the name of the Greens will not just be a brand. Because of course, in the political world people need new things, or need to be able to present new things, and we don´t want all things disguised in green.
I mean, being green is a philosophy. Of course it´s politics, but it´s also what we want to make of this world, and it has to do with how we make the difference to it. It´s not only getting there, it´s how we get there, and I would just like to hope that those who are embracing the green banner understand that it´s a commitment of ethic, of moral. I mean it has to be something that is truly honest, and it cannot be a disguise for personal interests. So that´s why we have to be very cautious.
James: Some people argue, and in fact Enrique mentioned this, that social policy, policy for creating equality, is really one and the same as green policy. That the policies for creating equality generally also create better environmental outcomes. Do you agree with this?
Ingrid: Yes, well they are linked, because whenever you improve the environment you improve things for those who are more dependent on nature, which are normally the poor people, or those at the bottom of the social ladder.
But I think that there are issues that are specifically social that have to be addressed as specifically social. I mean we all can recycle, and that´s something we should all do, but I think that making sure kids can go to good schools shouldn´t only depend on how much money you have. So there are things that we can all do and there are things that need cash to make it happen, there is a commitment required in social issues… because I think that social issues are the most fragile and the ones you can divert the most easily.
James: And what do you think of Hugo Chavez? He was an important player in trying to gain your release.
Ingrid: Well, what to say about Chavez? I think he is an impressive figure. I think he has done history. It is impossible to talk about Latin America in this period of time without talking about Chavez.
He was very important for our release. I think if he hadn´t been there we wouldn´t be out. Because… I think the Colombian Government feared him so much. It was the fear that helped, I mean it´s incredible ay? I think they just didn´t want him (Chavez) to have the trophy of getting us out.
James: Well he and Uribe (far right Colombian President of the time) were not good friends!
Ingrid: No, no. They pretended to be good friends but they were not. There was a deep competition between both… um… the reality was Chavez was the only one who could talk to the FARC, in a moment when the FARC had lost their political drive. So he really convinced them to do something political about the hostages, so he managed to have seven of us freed, and I mean that was amazing. The relationship with Sarkozy was also important, it helped, I think um… because Chavez himself maybe wouldn´t have been important enough in the eyes of Colombia. But of course once he had this international stage to talk about the hostages, which of course Sarkozy was helping him to have, I think this was one of the reasons why suddenly we had this incredible military operation.
James: That was very exciting! It would have been a great novel were it not real.
Ingrid: Yes, yes, it could be a novel. It was amazing what they did and he (Chavez) was very important for us. We owe him a lot.
James: And last question, do you have any political ambitions now? How do you intend to use your…
Ingrid: I don´t have political ambitions and I´m so glad I don´t. You know it´s like I´m really free, I´m really free, but it doesn´t mean that I´m not up to serving my country.
James: You have an advantage, in that a lot of people will listen to you around the world, you can use that.
Ingrid: Yes, people listen to me, and everywhere I go I find Colombians and it´s a very deep bond with Colombians. Of course I have had a difficult relationship with Colombia, especially lately, and this has been very hard for me. I think that the Colombian Government… and the establishment have done everything they can to… I mean I was a target for them. I think I was too high in the polls and they were scared… that I could divert their strategies. They were very hard on me and they attacked me in a way that was… um… not acceptable. And um… so I´m not very enthusiastic about getting home in the near future. I´m wounded I think.
James: OK Ingrid, well I hope you enjoy your few days in Tasmania.
Ingrid: Yes, I am enjoying it very much.
James: Thank you very much for talking to me and Tasmanian Times.
Ingrid: A pleasure, thank you.