When I met her, about a month before she was kidnapped by leftist guerrillas in Colombia, Ingrid Betancourt struck me as an idealist bordering on naive. We were in New York, and she was going back to Colombia to run for president, but somehow, she felt she could negotiate with the guerrillas and persuade them to give up their terrorist ways.
As we spoke for nearly an hour on a Spanish-language talk radio show I hosted in the city, she convinced me that she is an equal-opportunity critic, blasting both the left- and right-wing extremists in her country.
In fact, she was most critical of corrupt politicians and made me feel she feared the right-wing paramilitary squads more than the leftist rebels.
Perhaps it was her tough stand against the right that made her feel immune to the atrocities of the left, but after she returned to Colombia and had a face-to-face meeting with guerrilla leaders, after she challenged them to stop their kidnappings, she became one of their victims.
Advised by the Colombian army not to go into an area controlled by the rebels, she daringly went anyway. And she spent the next six years and 140 days in captivity, until the Colombian army rescued her and 14 other hostages last week.
So how does she feel about the Colombian army now? When she was running for president against Colombia's current president, Alvaro Uribe, she was opposed to Uribe's platform. Uribe said he would deal with the terrorists with a strong hand. Now that Uribe's approach has proved to be extremely successful, now that right-wing squads have disbanded and leftist rebels are on the run, now that Uribe is hailed by most Colombians as the best president they ever have had, the world is waiting to know how its most famous hostage would answer a few questions:
— Was the policy that saved her the wrong policy? Her dramatic rescue was the result of a series of Uribe government victories over the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has Latin America's longest-lasting and bloodiest guerrilla army rapidly disintegrating. Would she still support a policy of dialogue and only dialogue with her former abductors?
— How does she feel about Uribe now? During her captivity, members of her family, especially her mother, were extremely critical of the Uribe government. They stood firmly against any kind of military rescue attempt to free FARC hostages. Instead, they often encouraged the government to succumb to ridiculous guerrilla demands to free the hostages through negotiations. After the dramatic rescue of Betancourt and 14 other hostages, do they still feel that way? And where does Betancourt stand after she witnessed a military operation that she later described as "perfect"?
— Would she encourage negotiations with the rebels by using FARC allies, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, as mediators? Can she trust them?
— Would she support Uribe's re-election? Thousands of signatures have been raised by Colombians who want him to seek an unprecedented third term as president. But even if Uribe chose not to seek re-election, would she support an Uribe disciple, say another hard-liner, such as Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, the man who oversaw her rescue?
— What's in the future? Will she write a book or a play, lead a movement to free the hundreds of FARC hostages who still remain in captivity, run for president, or all of the above? When she ran for president in 2002 as a candidate of her own miniscule Green Oxygen Party, she had as much chance of getting elected as Ralph Nader does in the United States. But now she is certainly much more popular than when she was abducted. Does she still want to be a "peace-and-love" candidate for president? Does she want to turn the other cheek?
— What would be her platform? Has she learned that her captors — who used her only as merchandise and kept her as ranchers keep cattle — are not people who should be given access to power in a civilized society? Or would she make huge concessions to the nearly defeated terrorists?
— Can you really negotiate with drug-trafficking terrorists who believe in totalitarian socialism?
If I had Betancourt on the radio again, those are just some of the questions I would ask her.
Does she still believe what she told me in 2002? "If we are not afraid of death, imprisonment or anything else that can block our progress," she said, "we are finally going to achieve our dream, which is to have the country we deserve, a new Colombia."
Do you get what you want simply by wishing for it? Has Ingrid Betancourt learned her lesson? We still don't know. But we are getting some indications.
On a French radio station Monday, she urged Uribe to tone down his "radical, extremist language of hate" toward the rebels. Within a week of her rescue, she is beginning to show that her idealistic banner, which borders on naive, has not changed.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.