July 06, 2008
When I was growing up in Colombia many years ago, kidnappings were already becoming common occurrences. The prospect of captivity was terrifying, even if the news of acquaintances and their families falling into that dreaded purgatory became less and less rare.
The daring rescue last week of hostages held by Colombian rebels marks a milestone in Colombia's transformation, a transformation the Colombian people had already recognized. Now, the rest of the world should acknowledge Colombia's imperfect, but no less miraculous turnaround.
With the release of Ingrid Betancourt, along with three American contractors and a group of Colombians, some in the United States may pause for a moment to ponder the horrific crime of kidnapping. Growing up, we pondered it a lot, picturing not only ourselves in captivity, but our relatives. Knowing what a kidnapping does to a family. Along with fear of the kidnappers, there was the danger that the government would take action to gain someone's freedom. That often spelled disaster.
Colombia was a country of warm and kind people, where a few callous ones traded in human suffering, sometimes in the name of politics, sometimes just for money. The government was inept, incompetent and corrupt, incapable of defeating a Marxist insurgency that started in the 1960s, in the days when many still believed communism might solve the country's entrenched poverty and injustice. Drug money turned the rebels into capitalists, and it turned the entire population against their cause. It also made the war interminable. Then, in 2002, something changed. A new government came to power determined, with the help of Washington, to put an end to the conflict that was destroying Colombia while flooding America with narcotics.
The government of President Alvaro Uribe, the Harvard-educated leader who has achieved the impossible in Colombia, has gained the grateful approval of more than 80 percent of Colombians. It is the United States, unfortunately, that has somehow missed the extent of his accomplishments, and the importance of continuing to support him at a time when Colombia's neighbor, Venezuela, under Hugo Chávez works to turn Latin America away from the United States.
Perhaps the rest of the world, watching the images of reuniting families, will realize just why Colombians are so convinced their government -- despite serious flaws -- is on the right track. Perhaps the American politicians, who in recent months blocked a trade deal with Colombia, playing election year politics in the most absurd affront to logic, will reconsider the need to offer Colombia encouragement on its new path.
Maybe the unforgettable sight of one freed hostage will help: the image of the former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt wrapped tightly in her mother's arms at the airport tarmac, not only free but alive after six years of captivity. Or, from the next day, Betancourt reunited with her children, kissing her son, beaming as she tried to drink in his smile while her hands clutched her daughter. The daughter's head resting on her mother's shoulder as if trying to make up for the impossible deficit of half a childhood with a mother in chains thousands of miles away in a dangerous jungle, in the hands of warriors fighting a losing war.
In the last few months, the U.S. Congress blocked approval of a free trade agreement with Colombia, while Democratic candidates fought to sound tougher on Colombia. The issue was the murder of Colombian labor organizers, who have been killed in Colombia in numbers greater than anywhere in the world.
But Colombia's overall murder rate, once the highest in the world, is collapsing. Where almost 30,000 people were killed every year, the number -- still much too high -- has dropped in half. The number of kidnappings has fallen by two-thirds. The government is offering more protection to labor leaders, who were often killed because right-wingers suspected them of sympathizing with leftist insurgents.
The economy is growing, safety is returning to the once-forbidding streets of Bogotá, and investors are discovering Colombia is a place with a future. While Venezuela expropriates businesses and encourages others in Latin American to do the same, the World Bank ranked Colombia's economy the ''top reformer,'' with more openness and transparency.
`Turning the corner'
Most important, Colombia is winning the war that has destroyed so many lives. The right-wing paramilitaries have disbanded and the leftist FARC, still holding at least 700 hostages, is in slow collapse.
Colombia is still in the developing world. There is still too much corruption, too many murders and too much injustice. But the country is turning the corner. The freed victims of kidnappers know it. Colombians know it. It's time that Washington took notice and offered more enthusiastic support -- even if this is an election year in the United States.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs.