The promised liberation of three FARC hostages was the eye-moistening Christmas story that kept French media fluttering at the end of 2007.
Code named “Operation Emmanuel,” godfathered by the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez–whitewashed for the occasion by unashamedly partisan mass media–the rescue promised to bring home FARC captives Consuelo Gonzalez, Carla Rojas, and Emmanuel, the child she bore in captivity three and a half years ago. FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) is a Marxist guerilla militia that runs a thriving business in hostage-taking, as a sideline to its even more lucrative drug trade.
Presented as imminent and surefire, the liberation was hyped to the last detail. The premature joy of hostage’s relatives gathered in a hotel near the Villavicencio airstrip, the arrival of Venezuelan helicopters repainted in International Red Cross colors as instructed by guerilla chiefs, followed by the arrival of VIPs, including former Argentine president Kirchner, the French ambassador to Venezuela, and filmmaker Oliver Stone, maximo Chavez fan, poised to record the historic incident … to the glory of the jungle revolutionaries.
Christmas came and went with no tangible premonitory sign of liberation, but false hopes were at their height. On the appointed day, the helicopters couldn’t take off because the Red Cross refused to operate at night. The next day, the takeoff was promised from one minute to the next but didn’t happen. Then it was reported, with uncontrolled excitement, that the FARC had communicated the coordinates for the meeting point to the Venezuelan official who was on his way to Villavicencio. He hadn’t landed before the FARC themselves quashed the rumor. In fact, the coordinates would not be communicated until the helicopters were airborne.
I was convinced from day one that the whole thing was a pitiful hype. When I saw el Burrito Chavez stuffed into his shprintzy uniform with the red beret bent over a map of the region, drawing a huge arrow into the jungle with a magic marker, I said-to the closest ears in my entourage-“Nothing will come of this. He’s faking.” It was the arrow. A great big empty arrow following nothing but its own curve.
Christmas came and went. It became obvious that something had gone wrong…if it had ever gone right. But the media wanted to believe in Santa Claus. So instead of showing the helicopters (by then the first pair had been replaced by a second, smaller model demanded by the guerillas) stuck on the ground they replayed earlier images, landings made to look as dynamic as takeoffs, VIPs arriving with their rolling suitcases when in fact they had been twiddling their thumbs for two days. Another sign of impending fiasco-VIPs do not hang around for long when nothing is happening.
Colombian president Uribe, who had authorized the rescue attempt, came in person to deny rumors that it was collapsing because f US military spy planes were flying over the designated area. Further, the president announced that a sickly mistreated infant found in the jungle and left in a Bogota orphanage in 2005 might be the child Emmanuel.
Hue and cry from all directions. Uribe, portrayed as the bad guy who wants to bomb the FARC instead of trading prisoners and giving them a piece of the country from which to fight for the rest, was trying to pass off some poor orphan as the FARC baby, to hide the fact that his meanie government had jettisoned the glorious liberation.
The helicopters sputtered back to Venezuela, the disappointed families bowed their heads and went home (but, the media assured us, they had not lost confidence in Chavez), the VIPs disappeared without a word, no one asked what had become of Irving Stone, and DNA tests proved the orphan was Emmanuel, the son of Clara Rojas. Within 24 hours the FARC confirmed the revelation in their Bolivarian News Bulletin.
President Uribe suggested that the rescue operation bombed because the FARC did not have the child. But for many commentators, and readers of the French press, Uribe was still the bad guy. They thought he’d been keeping the orphan under wraps for years. One or two comments, most likely from South American immigrants, gave the whole dramatic story: the government was tipped off to the child’s identity because the FARC sent someone to recuperate him from the orphanage. But he had been placed with a family.
The media wrapped up with a drop of human interest-Emmanuel’s white-haired grandmother announcing at a press conference that she is impatient to welcome her grandson; Clara Rojas’ brother requesting custody, which will surely be granted; Ingrid Betancourt’s second husband expressing relief that the child will be reunited with his family and sadness that the other hostages were not released.
An occasional news report mentions that Chavez is discredited and Uribe strengthened by the fiasco. A charming French anchorwoman who has obviously gone native in Colombia reveled in the Chavez-Uribe mano a mano and claimed that Rojas had fallen in love with the guerrillero who fathered her child. But no serious analysis or appropriate reconsideration of the whole operation has appeared to balance the unfounded enthusiasm generated in its early stages.
A giant portrait of the French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt hangs from the ornate fa√ßade of the H√¥tel de Ville (Paris city hall). A cult of hostage worship developed several years ago when French journalists-Georges Malbrunot, Christian Chesnot and later Florence Aubenas-were taken hostage in Iraq with their local handlers in ambiguous circumstances that have never been elucidated. Their portraits came down in triumph when they were released, and Ingrid’s went up.
But the story goes back further. Ingrid Betancourt was a classmate of former PM Dominique de Villepin. Her French ex-husband and their two children have kept her case on the front pages. A slapdash rescue attempt during the Chirac government was quickly forgotten, and the issue has been framed ever since as a struggle between the U.S. & Uribe hardliners and the French suave negotiators. As if the former prevented the latter from achieving their noble goal.
Hostage liberation was one of Nicolas Sarkozy’s commitments during the presidential campaign. His first achievement, the liberation of the Bulgarian medical personnel imprisoned on false charges in Libya, was crowned with success worldwide but earned him scorn and contempt from French media and the left wing opposition. A dissident Colombian journalist claimed last summer, when the presidential couple was vacationing in Wolfeboro, that Ingrid Betancourt had been liberated and was waiting in Venezuela for C√©cilia Sarkozy to pick her up.
Then Hugo Chavez entered the picture with a promise to obtain proof that Ingrid Betancourt was still alive. President Sarkozy invited him to lunch, President Uribe granted him a margin of action, no proof was forthcoming, and Uribe cancelled the permission after the Venezuelan Duce phoned a high ranking officer to get information on army positions within reach of the FARC. At the end of November Colombian authorities arrested three FARC members bearing the proof–A long distressing letter and a video of an emaciated, pale, depressed Ingrid Betancourt, with long listless hair reaching to her hips as if she were already dead. (Translated excerpts of the letter were published in the Washington Post.)
Far from discouraging Chavez fans, this initial failure confirmed their trust in him. They blamed Uribe and plunged head first into the disastrous Christmas hype. Even before discovery of Emmanuel’s presence in Bogota, another mark of FARC cruelty had gone without comment: Betancourt’s campaign manager, Carla Rojas, and former senator Consuelo Gonzalez were slated for release…so close to Betancourt, but not Betancourt. This, too, was treated as a sign of hope.
The rescue Ingrid movement is currently running a TV commercial that begins with a video of Betancourt in a confab with a FARC leader. She offers him the proverbial carrot: “Be courageous, make a gesture, a gesture that would be like a gift-no more abductions…no more abductions.” Then, fast forward to today’s emaciated Ingrid, the website address www.agirpouringrid.com, and a call for action.
Betancourt was a minor green party candidate when she deliberately traveled into FARC territory with her campaign manager. Isn’t the TV commercial an embarrassment in that it reveals her na√Øve conviction that she could talk the FARC into a single-handed peace process?
Peace process, prisoner exchange, concessions, talking to everyone…sound familiar? This is the burning issue of our day. Hugo Chavez was supposed to a Christmas halo for claiming he can wrest three miserable hostages out of the hands of the corrupt FARC (and leave forty or fifty or a hundred more to rot in the jungle). He fails miserably.
Where do the disappointed French media go? Directly to Obamania! O diversity, o a new day dawning, o the America we like to love is going to turn its back on eight years of nasty unnecessary conflict. Talk nice and everything’s going to be all right.