Real female heroes: Ingrid Betancourt

The political rabble rouser, rumored to be near death, merits more column inches than all the bad girls of Hollywood combined.

By Carol Lloyd

Published April 4, 2008 10:50PM (EDT)

Weary of feminine train-wreck tales (Lohan, Spears, pick your poison), I've been yearning for stories about real female heroes. I don't mean ass-kicking female politicians (aka Clinton), but women whose bravery forces you to radically rethink your own life and challenge you to stand up for what you believe in.

Sadly, there aren't that many news stories about women like this. Or men, for that matter.

But about six years ago I heard an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" with Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian senator and presidential candidate who gave up her posh life as the wife of a French diplomat to fight corruption in Colombian politics, and her voice haunted me for months. The occasion was the publishing of her memoir in English, "Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Columbia." Her political rabble-rousing wasn't universally popular -- it led to death threats and threats on her children's lives. Those threats in turn forced her children to move to New Zealand to live with their father. Soon after her book was published, in February 2002, Betancourt was kidnapped by FARC, the Marxist guerrillas at war with the government-financed paramilitaries. Since then she's become (because of her dual French-Colombian citizenship) a French cause célèbre and the guerrillas' most valuable of an estimated 700 hostages.

Despite a couple of near misses when the Colombian government and the rebels appeared near to an agreement to exchange captives for prisoners, and when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez negotiated the release of a handful of captives last year, Betancourt's prospects have seemed bleak. In November the government found videotapes of Betancourt and other hostages that suggested that the captives were still alive, but in the soundless video footage she appeared extremely gaunt and did not look at the camera.

Recent news (via the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times, among others): After six years in captivity in the jungle the 46-year-old Betancourt is rumored to be on the verge of death. A priest from a village near FARC-occupied land claimed that she had been taken to the local clinic for medical care, though the doctor and the nurse there have denied they treated Betancourt. A medical mission sent by French President Nicolas Sarkozy landed in Colombia on Thursday, hoping to offer Betancourt medical care. But the most recent report from Reuters claims that the mission remains grounded in Bogota. "Are we pessimistic about a result from this French mission? Yes," Astrid Betancourt, Ingrid's sister, told the local media.

At this point it's impossible to know what will become of Betancourt, but as a progressive politician who has risked her life for her ideals, she merits more column inches than all the bad girls in Hollywood combined. For a great glimpse of her fierce resolve, check out this Salon interview, just a couple of weeks before her abduction, and for a documentary film shot during the years before and after her kidnapping, go here.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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