Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 10, 2003

Ingrid's Friends, the French

Our friends the French, particularly the suave, debonaire Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, suffered a small embarrassment recently, one that I mourn, not for his or their sake. Their embarrassment came from a diplomatic faux pas deep in the Amazon of Brazil. Seems the French acted a bit unilaterally in attempting the rescue of Green Party candidate for the presidency of Colombia, Ingrid Betancourt, from the FARC guerrillas. (I say “seems” because surely appearances must be deceiving, the French would never act unilaterally.) They seem to have neglected to mention their plans to Brazil or Colombia, before sending in Secret Service agents and at least one “high government official” on a mission to rescue, recover, or ransom Betancourt. The French actions resulted in anger from both Colombia and Brazil.

There are a slew of articles on this, here are a few:
Rescue Mission Ends in Red Faces
Bungle in the Jungle
French Amazon Mission Wild Goose Chase, Rebels Say
French minister denies bid to save female friend in Amazon raid

The reports are confusing and confused. The whole thing may have been a hoax; FARC denied all knowledge of any offer of ransom. Reuters says that “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which grabbed Betancourt at a roadblock 17 months ago as she campaigned for Colombia's presidency, said they had never planned to hand her over to a French "humanitarian mission" in the Brazilian Amazon.”

The whole episode may have been a publicity stunt by the FARC. International attention might create pressure on Colombian officials to comply with FARC demands that Betancourt be exchanged for imprisoned guerrillas. In either case, France acted unilaterally in attempting to deal with the situation deep within Brazil with an eye at the Brazil-Colombia border.

The French connection to Betancourt dates back to her education in France, her first marriage, and continued through a family friendship with de Villepin. Betancourt holds dual Colombian and French citizenship.

Ms. Betancourt was abducted along with her campaign manager, Clara Roges, while campaigning back on February 23, 2002. FARC has made the kidnapping and ransoming of politicians, foreigners and businesspeople into big business. Betancourt’s platform for her presidency bid included promises to fight corruption which FARC and the drug cartels use as avenues to ensure their immunity to arrest and prosecution. Possibly due to that or perhaps simply because she was a “high value target,” she received many warnings that the rebels, FARC, was looking to abduct her. Despite the warnings, she continued campaigning, even in areas nominally under FARC control.

I read her bio a year or so ago after spotting it on a new books display. Her name caught my eye because Dad had flown a Columbian Secretary of State, or something, with the name Betancourt, on a survey flight up in the same area that FARC now rules. This was back in the late 60’s or very early 70's, so my memory is a bit hazy. I might be crossconnecting the name of a Brazilian official he flew on a similar flight. It turned out she wasn't related to anyone he flew, as far as he can tell. In any case, I saw the name, read the back flap, then bought it.

I feel a certain closeness to Colombia, as I do to Brazil, due to growing up down there on the border. (Oddly, I don’t feel the same towards Peru. But then the Peruvians called us “gringos” and treated us differently than did the Colombians.) A couple of my first crushes were on Colombian girls from Leticia, a few miles across the big river.

Partly as a result of that background, I also feel a bit more national guilt, personally, towards Colombia, for what this country’s appetite for cocaine and marijuana have done to it. If we’d get serious about solving our problem, we wouldn’t infect our neighbors. Demands, not supplies, drive markets.

My review of Ms. Betancourt’s book, Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia, is mixed. It was interesting reading. I respect her courage and willingness to risk her life for what she believes, and I believe that she really wants to make a better country for her people. I’m not sure that what she proposes would work, but it could hardly be worse than things are there at the moment. And I would, of course, love to see her freed.

But is this the proper way to go about it? According to reports, France thought it was dealing with FARC for her release. It must have expected a request for quid pro quo of some sort. FARC is not comprised of nice guys who suffer attacks of conscience and release ransomable captives out of the goodness of their hearts. At least they weren’t last I checked.

France denies any negotiations. The mission itself cannot be denied as its existence is supported by physical evidence and direct testimony of a Brazilian pilot hired to take four “explorers” to a village to meet a boat bringing four more people. He recognized the four as men who disembarked from a French Hercules parked at Manaus airport (about 700 miles from the Colombian border, distances are large in the Amazon). The pilot’s suspicions were aroused by some odd questions, and he slipped away to report his concerns to police, which triggered the diplomatic incident.

All this results in mixed feelings for me towards the French actions. I admire and applaud their willingness to take action to protect a citizen. I question their methods. Considering the shrillness of French screams of “unilateral!” not long ago, and the ongoing whining now towards the U.S., it’s hard not to see their actions in this incident as anything other than the grossest hypocrisy. It’s okay for them to act unilaterally and covertly, invading (or at least operating illegally in) one country, Brazil, and ignoring the greater interests of another in the case, Colombia, all to attempt to save one dual-citizen (who happens to be a friend of a Mr. de Villepin) from terrorist guerrillas. It’s not okay for the U.S., acting after a unanimous Security Council vote of censure of Iraq, acting to enforce cease fire obligations agreed to by Iraq upon the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, in conjunction with several other nations who agreed it must be done, to invade and topple a totalitarian despot known for torture, genocide and other human rights abuses.

Of course, one thing explains the odd French logic. In both cases they were looking out for themselves first. French interests in Iraq are well documented. In itself, self interest is understandable.

But in the old Greek sense a friend is an “other self.” That is the way we Americans try to see our friendships. Sadly, to the French the U.S. has never been, and probably never will be, “us.”

The Greens have a Free Ingrid site up here. I can support them on this one issue, at least.

There is also a Canadian Free Ingrid site here.

I guess we'll see how effective they can be.

Posted by dan at August 10, 2003 10:38 PM
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