Betancourt, Ingrid: 1961—: Politician

views updated

Ingrid Betancourt: 1961: Politician

On February 23, 2002, a group of Colombian revolutionaries called the Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and her chief of staff, Clara Rojas. While the event received worldwide press coverage, reaction from the Colombian government was more subdued. Political officials had been abducted before, and a number of prominent figures, including presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, had been assassinated. Betancourt herself had described such risks in her book, Until Death Do Us Part : "Now that I've arrived at this point, will they kill me, too? My relationship with death is like that of a tightrope walker: we're both doing something dangerous, and we've calculated the risks, but our love of perfection invariably overcomes our fear."

Betancourt has built her reputation on a willingness to fight corruption in Colombia despite such hazards. She told Juan Forero of the New York Times, "Corruption is not abstract; it has a face, and it has a name and we have to say it." Although born into privilege and educated in France, Betancourt returned to Colombia at age 30 to work in government. Her daring and abrasive style included handing out condoms (to symbolize protection against corruption) in her campaign for a seat in Congress. While her methods have often been criticized, they have also gathered media attention that helped her win seats in the Colombian House of Representatives and the Senate in 1994 and 1998. Her victories also placed Betancourt in the position to launch a presidential campaign at the end of 2001.

Born Into Privilege

Ingrid Betancourt was born in 1961 in Bogotá, Colombia, but she spent much of her youth in Paris. Her father, Gabriel Betancourt, intermittently served as the assistant director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and as minister of education, positions that moved the family between Colombia and France. Pope Paul VI administered Betancourt's first communion, and she exchanged lines of poetry with Pablo Neruda, a family friend. However, as she recalled in her book, Until Death Do Us Part, a family maid informed Betancourt that she lived a privileged life, telling her: "You must not forget, Ingrid, that the world does not resemble the one you're living in today. Reality is painful, life is difficult, and someday it may be painful and difficult for you too."

At a Glance . . .

Born Ingrid Betancourt on December 25, 1961, in Bogotá, Colombia; daughter of Gabriel Betan-court (assistant director to UNESCO and Minister of Education) and Yolanda Pulecio (a legislator); married Fabrice Delloye (divorced); married Juan Carlos Lecomte; children: (with Delloye) Melanie, Lorenzo. Education: University of Political Science, France, B.A., political science.

Career: Served one term in the Colombia legislature, 1994-97; formed Liberal Oxygen Party and elected senator, 1998; ran for office of president of Colombia, 2002.

Addresses: Office 75 N 7-24, Bogotá, Colombia.

Betancourt has related that much of her involvement in politics stemmed from her early life in Paris. As a child, she would hide and listen to her parents discuss Colombian politics with their friends. She also grew to believe that because of her own special status, she should give something back. In Until Death Do Us Part, she recalled her father telling her, "'You know Ingrid, Colombia has given us a great deal. Because you've had so many opportunities, you now have a debt to Colombia.'" Betancourt attended the Institute of Political Science in Paris, where she laid the groundwork for her future involvement in government. She also met a French diplomat, Fabrice Delloye, and the two married.

For the next ten years, Betancourt traveled with her husband as his work took him to France, Ecuador, the Seychelles, and the United States. The couple also had two children, Melanie and Lorenzo. Betancourt kept abreast of Colombian politics by keeping in contact with her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, who held a seat in the legislature. Although Betancourt expressed a desire to return to Colombia, her husband worried about the dangers. In 1986 she visited Colombia with her eldest child, reacquainting herself with her native land, and feeling more than ever the need to return and become involved in politics.

Returned to Colombia

In 1989 Betancourt traveled with Lorenzo to Paris to visit Delloye's family. Although she had found the trip relaxing, on August 18, 1989, she found herself unable to sleep. The following morning she called her mother in Colombia and discovered that Luis Carlos Galan, the liberal candidate for the presidency, had been killed. "When they killed him, I had a single obsession: to come back to Colombia at whatever cost, even though it cost me my marriage," she told Juanita Darling in the Los Angeles Times. "They killed Galan on August 17, 1989, and by the beginning of January 1990, I was in Colombia." Leaving Los Angeles also came with a price. Betancourt and Delloye divorced, and he temporarily received custody of their two children. In Colombia she tentatively began her career in politics by becoming her mother's advisor during her senatorial campaign in 1990.

After the campaign Betancourt received a job at the finance ministry and later at commerce. During her three-year tenure in government service, she became aware of the harsh realities of Colombian politics. Drug money lined the pockets of politicians, blocking a number of reforms, and local officials often siphoned off government funds before they could be applied to housing or other projects. Jeremy Lennard of the Guardian (London) wrote, "Colombia produces 80% of the world's cocaine and is taking an increasing share of the U.S. heroin market. The vast sums of money earned by the traffickers have spawned corruption at every level of society." The exporting of drugs, along with Colombia's unwillingness to respect patent laws, strained both political and business relationships with the international community. Meanwhile, Betancourt's travels to outlying regions revealed that many Colombians lived in poverty with inadequate health and education facilities. She began to feel that her position as a bureaucrat limited her ability to propose and fight for the issues she cared about. In 1994 she resigned her position to run for a seat in the lower house.

Became a Politician

In 1994 Betancourt ran as a liberal in the congressional elections, publicizing her anti-corruption stance. She gathered attention by handing out condoms on the street to strangers. "She dubbed corrupt Colombian officials carriers of 'social Aids' and called on the public to don a political condom by supporting her campaign," Lennard commented. Although many disliked her directness, her grass roots campaign received more attention in the press because of her controversial methods. Though many believed that she had little chance of succeeding, Betancourt won her seat, receiving the highest vote totals of any congressional candidate in Bogotá.

As a representative Betancourt ruffled the feathers of many legislators by fighting corruption wherever she found it. She launched a campaign against a government arms contract to purchase outdated weapons, and later, when it was revealed that the newly elected president, Ernesto Samper, had received campaign money from the Cali drug cartel, she worked to expose the affair. She also came face to face with the Rodriguez brothers, the principal leaders of the Cali drug cartel, who informed her that they had contributed to Samper's campaign fund, and that they also provided funds for many other members of Congress. This meeting led her to believe that corruption permeated all levels of the Colombian government.

Betancourt told the Los Angeles Times, "Between the drug traffickers and the guerrillas, we have been made almost ashamed to be Colombian, and a country that is ashamed of itself is a country without a future. We have to reconstruct our hopes and dreams." Although the Samper affair, and a book she wrote about it, raised Betancourt's profile, her fight against corruption also led to threats against her and her family. Because of these threats, she sent both of her children to live with Delloye in New Zealand in 1996.

The following year Betancourt launched a new political party, the Liberal Oxygen Party, in an effort to offer a choice outside of the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. She told Time International, "Our goal is to increase access to power and to curb the influence of an exclusive political class." She also decided to run for a seat in the upper house. As with her previous campaign, Betancourt garnered votes through nonstop campaigning and atypical methods that included handing out anti-pollution masks. She won the election with the highest vote total ever achieved for a Colombian senate seat, but her attempts to push forward environmental, housing, and media ownership legislation ran into fierce opposition. Betancourt's most radical piece of legislation recommended replacing Colombia's Congress with a new legislative body. When the legislation failed, she resigned her seat and announced her plans to run for the presidency in 2002.

Launched Presidential Campaign

In the fall of 2001 Betancourt traveled throughout Colombia, accompanied by bodyguards, in a 25-year-old Dodge minibus as she campaigned for president. Her campaign once again utilized novel methods when she handed out Viagra pills to symbolize the need to reinvigorate Colombia. Several other candidates also entered the race, making her challenge difficult. Both Liberal Horacio Serpa, a former interior minister, and Alvaro Uribe, a former governor of the Antioquia province, were well-connected in Colombian politics. Former British Ambassador Noemi Sanin, the first Colombian woman to head a corporation, also entered the race. Despite the competition and initial low poll numbers, Betancourt remained undeterred. "I will win and I will do it by taking my campaign directly to ordinary Colombians," she told Lennard of the Guardian. "I can count on the regional media for good coverage and the rest is me, face to face with the people."

Betancourt's willingness to take risks and offer assistance to Colombia's rural population have made her a folk hero, but her direct methods have also made her unpopular with other politicians. Lennard wrote, "To her supporters, she is the only hope for a fairer Colombia. To her detractors, she is rude and hysterical, a self-promoting hypocrite who trumpets her concern for others while seeking power for herself." Betan-court, however, seemed nonplussed by her critics. She told Damien Cave in Salon, "The criticism is really a way of undermining my struggle [against corruption]. I'm fighting to clean my country to have a democracy that's as strong and as effective as the one you have here in America, Europe and other countries."

Although she was still being held by FARC at the time of the election, Betancourt's name remained on the ballet. She lost the May of 2002 election, and, despite diplomatic efforts, remained in captivity.



Betancourt, Ingrid, Until Death Do Us Part, Harper-Collins, 2002, pp. 18, 22, 228.


Dallas Morning News, May 27, 2002, p. 1A.

Guardian (London), November 10, 2001, p. 97.

Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1998, p. A1.

New York Times, November 17, 2001, A4.

New York Times Magazine, July 2, 2000, p. 37.

Time International, May 24, 1999, p. 58.


Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.