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Now free, Betancourt shuns bitterness, seeks to heal Colombia

Ingrid Betancourt, right, and her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, at a military base in Bogota after the rescue.
Ingrid Betancourt, right, and her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, at a military base in Bogota after the rescue. Reina / MCT

BOGOTA, Colombia — Ingrid Betancourt, the famed hostage of Colombia's largest guerrilla group, lived the last six years chained to trees in the jungle. She nearly died from tropical diseases that left her despondent and emaciated.

Yet since her spectacular release last Wednesday, Betancourt has emerged preaching not hate and bitterness, but peace and national reconciliation for this war-weary nation.

"The first thing we have to do is change hearts," Betancourt told McClatchy in an exclusive interview. "We have to change the vocabulary of hate. When I dreamed of being free, I told myself that I could not engage in hate or rancor."

Her selfless commentary has helped catapult her into the front-runner position to be Colombia's next president. The election will be in 2010.

Betancourt, however, wasn't interested in discussing politics or her ambitions during a 10-minute telephone conversation late Sunday night while she was in Paris.

Weary but speaking with a strong voice, she marveled briefly at the faster pace of life now, and its problems.

"It's a neurotic world, and there are lots of conflicts," she said. "There's a food crisis and an energy crisis. People are very anxious about this. We need to reflect on how we behave."

But mostly she wanted to discuss the next step for Colombia, a country that for 60 years has suffered from an untold number of murders and kidnappings — mostly from struggles over power and the country's cocaine business — which have made it the most violent nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Betancourt said she supported President Alvaro Uribe's efforts to keep constant military pressure on the guerrillas, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC in its Spanish initials.

But with the FARC decimated and on its heels — especially after the guerrillas lost 15 hostages in last week's rescue, including prized captives Betancourt and three American military contractors — Betancourt said that Uribe should redouble efforts to seek a peaceful conclusion to what's been a 44-year war with the group.

"The guerrillas are our enemy," Betancourt said in the interview. "But we shouldn't insult them. We should show them how to seek a dignified exit through peaceful negotiations. If we don't defeat them correctly, we will sow the seeds of hate for the future."

Betancourt, who's gaunt but seemingly healthy, has gone through a dizzying array of events in the past week.

Last Tuesday night, she spent yet another evening manacled to a tree in the jungle.

On Wednesday afternoon, she and the other kidnap victims boarded a white helicopter that supposedly was transferring them to another FARC captor as a humanitarian mission. Instead, government commandos dressed as international aid workers overpowered their two FARC guards. Suddenly, they were free.

A throng of reporters met Betancourt three hours later at a military airport in Bogota. The scene was televised live throughout Latin America.

On Thursday, Betancourt was reunited with her son and daughter. The French government flew them to Bogota from France, where they live.

On Friday, she returned with them to France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy greeted her as a national heroine. The 46-year-old daughter of a beauty queen and a former Colombian ambassador to France has dual French-Colombian citizenship.

"I am anxious to re-establish ties with my family," Betancourt said in the interview.

That may not include her second husband, however. He stayed behind in Bogota, apparently at her wishes.

Betancourt seems eager to re-enter politics, but not immediately.

She'd been planning to return to Colombia to participate in a massive anti-FARC rally July 20 but her family convinced her not to, saying that it would be too dangerous to be there.

"There could be possible reprisals," she said. "My family is very worried about that. My family has suffered a lot. I have to listen to them."

Friends have advised her to rest, catch up with her family and hold off on worrying about her political future.

Nonetheless, speculation over her presidential ambitions already has begun. The former senator was making a long-shot bid for president in 2002 when the FARC kidnapped her.

A new poll conducted for Semana magazine in Colombia's four biggest cities showed Betancourt with 31 percent of the vote, double the support of Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who himself shot up in the poll by overseeing Wednesday's rescue mission.

Her strength in the poll comes with a big "if," however. If Uribe seeks an unprecedented third term, he'd easily defeat Betancourt or any other candidate, most agree.

The Semana poll showed him leading the field with 72 percent.

The conservative Uribe has decimated the FARC, kidnappings have plummeted and the economy has grown steadily since he took office in 2002.

He's taken the initial steps to change the country's Constitution so that he can run for a third term. It would require approval by Congress and the Colombian people in a referendum. The poll shows that 77 percent support the change.

While Betancourt remains in Paris, former Sen. Luis Eladio Perez is beginning to organize a national movement in Colombia aimed at national reconciliation that Betancourt would lead.

"We need to create peace in Colombia and create a more just society," Perez said.

About 60 percent of Colombians live in extreme poverty, earning $2 a day or less. The Semana poll showed that 50 percent of those surveyed think that combating poverty is the country's most important issue.

"We want to invite Colombians of all political stripes to rebuild the country," Perez said. "Focusing only on a military solution won't solve the country's problems. I don't have any doubt that she will lead this movement. Whether or not she runs for president would depend on the success of the national appeal."

He's probably more privy to Betancourt's initial thoughts in freedom than anyone else in Colombia. They've spoken daily and at length since she went to France.

They spent five years together in FARC camps, chained to trees about 20 feet apart. During their captivity, by shouting back and forth to each other, they developed a 190-point plan for a new government.

The FARC unilaterally freed Perez in February along with three other former lawmakers.

"I see her as very serene, very mature, very humble," Perez said. "Before, she was very opinionated and belligerent."

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