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| 2/10/2009 12:00:00 AM

Former FARC hostages: from the jungle to Congress

Almost all of the recently freed Colombian hostages are betting on the humanitarian exchange in the next elections. They believe that their ordeal will win them votes.

A few minutes after former hostage Sigifredo López got out of the helicopter and emotionally embraced his two sons, who he hadn’t seen in more than six years, he began to speak before the crowds who were there to greet him. He made a long speech in a packed plaza, followed by a press conference which resembled a political campaign. Literally, he went from the infernal isolation of being a hostage to the public stage that connected him with the masses.

The politicians who have recovered their freedom in Colombia are victims of the guerrilla, and that has given them national recognition. They have increased their political capital and now have real options to be on the front row of politics. Politics is built on emotions and a human story loaded down in pain, such as that of kidnapping, with an adequate dose of rhetoric and a simple political strategy, could catapult them in the next elections.

That is what happened, for example, with Fernando Araújo, who was kidnapped six years and escaped in January 2007. Because he was a victim, he was immediately named minister of foreign affairs, so that he could give a testimony to the whole world about the inhumane methods that the FARC uses with their hostages. Although his work has not deserved much praise, today he is a strong contender to be the Conservative Party candidate for the presidency. Araújo, who is a declared supporter of Uribe, is the only former hostage who does not support the humanitarian exchange and wants a continuation of the policies of democratic security.

Íngrid Betancourt was also a controversial and radical politician, and she never surpassed 2 percent in public opinion polls during the 2002 presidential race. Nevertheless, now free, she is second most popular national figure, after President Álvaro Uribe.

At the regional level, the phenomenon could be repeated. The released politicians, although they have been just local politicians in the past, today are conferred with values that people can identify with, like the stoic capacity to suffer and the supreme value of freedom. Ultimately, they project the metaphor of a country in war with their very presence.

Although their kidnapping did not make them politicians, captivity does give them an aura and magnetism with public opinion that no one in search of votes can dismiss. People love and admire them, the media still has the spotlight on them and their words are heard with respect.

SEMANA spoke with almost all of the liberated hostages and it is practically a fact that all of them will throw themselves into the ring. Some want to be governors, but the majority are interested in joining Congress.

One of the politicians who has been the most in the media since his release is the former governor of the Meta province, Alan Jara, of the Liberal Party. On the one hand, he made the whole country talk about his speech, in which he harshly criticized Uribe. That had such an impact in public opinion that even Uribe went last Tuesday to Villavicencio (a town in Eastern Colombia) to speak with him and respond to his comments. If Jara was already popular in Meta, now he is even more popular and can run for whatever he wants, be it for Congress or for the governorship. Although it is premature to know what decision he will make – he has only been free for one week – what is clear is that he will return to politics and that he will run hard for a humanitarian exchange and negotiations with the FARC.

At the same time, Luis Eladio Pérez is one of the few lfreed hostages who says that he will not run for office. But his project is perhaps more ambitious than the others. He wants to create a new party for which he already has a name, the Movement for National Reconstruction. He hopes to collect 500,000 signatures starting in March and his purpose is to “represent the 15 million Colombians who do not vote” because they do not identify with the politicians.

Although Betancourt has been out of the political spotlight for the last few months, it would not be unheard of that Pérez’s movement would give her a platform in the case that she would decide to run for president. After all, Betancourt and Pérez dedicated entire months of their captivity discussing a plan for government.

Among the former hostages, the department of Huila is most represented. Jorge Eduardo Géchem, who has served four terms in Congress, was freed in February and in April he was already visiting the 37 municipalities of the province, 10 in Caquetá and other towns in Putumayo. He is the only of all of the hostages who has already made his interest in running for Senate public and in his region it is already known in Huila that his candidate for the House of Representatives will be Orlando Beltrán, another of the hostages, who has also made his candidacy clear.

Consuelo González has not made a final decision, but it is highly probable that she will also run for Senate. Curiously, her experience in the jungle made her distance herself from Géchem, her regional political head and who her wealthy husband financed. González, whose first experience in Congress was interrupted by the FARC, says that she does not want to use her condition of being a former hostage in order to win elections. “I am very clear that if I do return to politics, I do not want to take advantage of my tragedy in order to get votes. I do not want to be the victim in a campaign”.

The case of Gloria Polanco is different because she has never been in politics. She was elected when she was already kidnapped, thanks to a move by her husband, Jaime Losada, who with the best intentions to free her, got her elected, but the strategy ended up backfiring (he was then murdered). However, Polanco does want to give the ballot box a go. She could be a candidate for governor, because people have good memories of her as first lady of the department of Huila. Neither can it be discarded that she will be on the list of candidates of Conservative Party member and president of the House of Representatives Hernán Andrade.

Clara Rojas is another case. Although at the moment of her kidnapping she was practically unknown, her friendship with Íngrid Betancourt and the moving story of the son she had in captivity, his loss and their happy reunion, has made her a figure of national and international interest, a situation for which many are envious. Although she is not in campaign, Rojas is being courted by several parties who want her as a future candidate.

Perhaps the exception is Óscar Tulio Lizcano. Despite that at the time of his kidnapping he was in the middle of his political career, eight years in the jungle left him without a desire to return to the court of public opinion. The former politician, who heroically escaped a FARC camp months ago, says that although he has received political proposals by members of the U Party, he has declined because, “everyone knows that I need a long process of recuperation.” What cannot be discarded is putting himself to the service of the career of his son Mauricio Lizcano.

There are three questions to answer regarding the desire of the former hostages to return to politics. Will they be elected? How positive will it be if they are elected? What role will they play in Congress?

To the first question, the obvious answer would be to think that it is almost a certainty that all of the former hostages who run will be elected. In particular those who run for Senate, because as senators are elected nationally, that ends up favoring those with the most media coverage. Never before has a representative or senator had more exposure and such a benevolent treatment as the freed hostages have had in the media.

There is no doubt that during the campaign, with the former-hostage label and their incredible personal dramas, that they will be a big hit. Finally, it cannot be discarded that a good part of the electorate will think that supporting them is like voting in favor of freedom and in protest against a FARC who today have lower approval numbers than the devil.

But it isn’t enough to play the hostage card in order to gain votes. Emotions are important, but in politics, they don’t last. In the case of the Colombian politicians who were kidnapped, it remains to be seen if the symbolic value of who they are and the credibility that they have are enough, for example, to convince people that we must negotiate with the FARC. That is something that the majority of them defend.

But one thing is being hostages that has turned them into more attractive candidates and another, very different, is that seven years in the jungles has turned them into better politicians or that gives them more solid credentials to undertake their jobs. In many of the cases, not in all of them, f the candidates are not remembered with particular gratitude, some because they were traditional political party bosses and others because they were inconsequential politicians.

That’s why, beyond their performance as politicians, we could see the emergence of a sort of political coalition in support of a humanitarian exchange and political negotiation with the FARC during the next congressional elections. Even if the number of liberated hostages is not very high, it is difficult to think that their voices would not be listened to by the rest of Congress and that it would not produce a contagious effect among their colleagues.

The coalition of the liberated hostages is a clear demonstration that the bug of politics resists the most hazardous conditions of the jungle. That unshakable vocation and the cruel and unprecedented experience that they lived provide them with a golden opportunity.

Without a doubt they have before them the challenge of achieving a single voice in Congress with a moral authority that no other politician has in order to achieve a lasting transformation in the war.

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