CARTAGENA, Colombia - More politically breathtaking than the dramatic rescue of Ingrid Betancourt last week is the unexpected message that the former presidential candidate delivered after six years of captivity in Colombian jungles.
Betancourt, slight but still well-spoken, deftly discredited critics of President Alvaro Uribe's two-pronged approach toward the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Her support for Uribe's carrot-and-stick policies - beefing up the military while offering to negotiate with the guerrillas - countered many of her self-proclaimed supporters, including human rights groups, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, leftist lobbyists in Washington and her own mother.
Betancourt was right to speak out. But Uribe will be wrong if he hears a siren song in her message.
Uribe has been toying with the notion of exploiting his incredible popularity - he is the only sitting Colombian president to be reelected - and changing the constitution to seek a third term. This would undermine the country's admirably growing institutions and his own considerable legacy.
The constitution was already amended in 1995 to permit Uribe to run for a second term. "I think that one of (the) hardest blows given to the FARC, aside from this extraordinary (rescue) operation, is the president's reelection," the center-left Betancourt said Thursday. Colombia has a history of alternating between tough and conciliatory presidents, she noted, which has allowed the more than 40-year-old guerrilla movement to expand during each turnover.
She lauded Uribe's ability to see through to fruition his "democratic security" policies. The carrot has been the demobilization of about 35,000 supposedly right-wing paramilitaries and nearly 12,000 left-wing guerrillas, with various levels of amnesty. The stick is the greatly improved Colombian military, aided in part by $5.5 billion in U.S. aid since 2000 under Plan Colombia.
That aid and the military have been criticized by human rights groups and some in Washington, but Betancourt left no doubt that she shares a favorable public perception of the military that is matched in polls here only by that of the Catholic Church. "Thank you, my army, of my country, for your impeccable operation," she said. "I ask Colombians to believe in this army, which is going to take us to peace."
She called on Chavez and Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa to remember that Uribe was democratically elected, while the FARC has almost no public support. As to her mother siding with Chavez earlier in supporting a failed mediation effort to win Betancourt's freedom, she said that it was a maternal instinct to oppose a potentially dangerous rescue and gently chided her mother to thank Uribe.
Betancourt's composure and sanguine analysis belie suspicions that she might have been overcome with appreciation for her saviors. Although she was kidnapped on a campaign trip in February 2002, she said that she may run again for president.
But her statements also belie the scorched-earth policies of otherwise well-meaning groups such as Human Rights Watch, which has persuaded many Democrats in Congress to oppose a pending free-trade agreement with Colombia on human rights grounds. In a news release regarding Sen. John McCain's coincidental trip to Colombia last week, the organization asked him to "ignore the official spin and support threatened democratic institutions in Colombia" and called Colombia only "formally a democracy."
Colombia has its issues. Some paramilitary forces have gone back into the drug trade, oddly in alliance with the guerrillas in some areas. Political violence continues, though it is way down as the military has asserted control over most of the country with only minimal rights violations. The much-improved justice system, meanwhile, has under Uribe won some 140 convictions in murder cases of union members alone, an unusual rate of success in human rights prosecutions.
What both Betancourt and Uribe understand is that the biggest challenge in Colombia is to build the nation, its unity and its institutions.
A third Uribe term would run counter to that. He almost surely would win, but the nation has a wealth of proven political talent, nearly all of which, including politicians from the leftist Polo Party, support the main lines of the president's security policies.
Questions about the legitimacy of the last constitutional change already follow Uribe. Many of his supporters in the Senate who voted for it are being prosecuted, accused of alliances with paramilitaries. There is no doubt that the public wanted the measure, and Uribe is considering a referendum to make the point ex post facto. Let him do it and go out in glory. He should build the legitimacy of the presidency by letting it go to someone else.
Edward Schumacher-Matos, a former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Americas, is the Robert F. Kennedy visiting professor in Latin American studies at Harvard University.
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