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Revolutionaries are often master self-promoters, so it's only natural for a PR professional to turn political activist. Case in point: on February 24, Harpercollins publicity director Justin Loeber e-mailed U.S. Journalists, announcing that colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt had been kidnapped by left-wing guerrillas and urging the media to use "the power of publicity" to call attention to her plight. With the magic of PR, he suggested, we might save her life.
Loeber's motives are not entirely altruistic. Two months ago, HarperCollins published Betancourt's memoir, Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia, which was a bestseller in France and Colombia but has languished in the States.
Nevertheless, this is an appealing cause for publicity. The left-wing guerrillas, or FARC, kidnapped 40-year-old Betancourt because of her high profile, and they are holding her and an estimated 200 other hostages, whom they hope to release in exchange for guerrillas currently being held by the government, sometime after the presidential election on May 26. Though Betancourt is trailing in the polls, her central platform, eliminating government corruption, is one that sorely needs to be addressed.
Loeber likens Betancourt's kidnapping to "censorship" in a country where freedom-fighters are often "annihilated." If she were American, he suggests, "she could be the next Daniel Pearl."
The connection may seem tenuousuntil his kidnapping and murder in Pakistan, Pearl was a wise-cracking Wall Street Journal reporter, while Betancourt was known as an earnest political reformer. But like Pearl, Betancourt "provides a face that most Americans can relate to," says writer Mark Schapiro, whose profile of Betancourt appears in the April issue of Elle. Not only does she "look like an American soccer mom," he says, but "her English is perfect, she's attractive, and she's very smart, sincere, and articulate." While Pearl's wife is expecting her first child, Betancourt is the mother of two children whom she sent to live outside of Colombia after receiving a death threat in 1996.
Story-wise, the most appealing thing about Betancourt is that she is likely to remain alive, and any journalist reeling from Pearl's death might find cause for hope in reporting on her plight. But Loeber says it won't do any good to "fly down and crash a piece" when the hostage is released, as one prominent TV anchor has offered to do. "We need news people and America now."
The timing of the Elle article is sheer coincidence. Last fall, after hearing about the memoir, senior features editor Ben Dickinson assigned a profile to Schapiro, who was headed to Bogotá on other business. Schapiro attended the launch of the candidate's presidential campaign and a holiday dinner with her family; the result is the first U.S. magazine profile of Betancourt.
Bogotá is known territory for Schapiro, who has written about Latin America and Eastern Europe for Harper's, The Atlantic, and The Nation. "I have covered Colombia for the last five years," he says, "and I love the country's spirit and culture. It's a dynamic, interesting place with great energy, a lively opposition, a lively press, and a lot of freedom." One of the reasons he wanted to write about Betancourt was "to show that there's more to this country than drugs and corruption."
Drugs and corruption are, of course, the central themes of Betancourt's career. But first she had to make the transformation from privileged daughter of a French ambassador to privileged wife and mother to privileged member of the Colombian congress, to which she was first elected in 1994. Following the model of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, who was assassinated in 1989, she chose corruption as the main plank of her platform, criticizing drug lords, politicians, and industrialists alike. Then she was shockedshocked!to find herself the subject of smear campaigns in the press. In the book, she recounts how her lawyer told her, "My child, you don't realize what a monster you've challenged. They . . . don't have anything on you, but they will stop at nothing to discredit you."
Despite the warning, Betancourt did not stop speaking truth to power. In 1996, she went on a hunger strike to call for an independent investigation of former president Ernesto Samper, who had allegedly accepted contributions from the Cali cartel. In 1998, she formed her own political party and was elected to the Colombian Senate with a record number of votes. When current president Andrés Pastrana failed to deliver on a campaign promise to fight corruption, she publicly denounced him for his betrayal.
In a recent book review, The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung found it difficult to take Betancourt seriously, given her "air of combined noblesse oblige and naïveté." Even Schapiro admits that his subject has "a little bit of the savior complex. She sees herself as the Joan of Arc of Colombia, and for that reason she doesn't have a lot of support in the intelligentsia." Nevertheless, he says, "She is heroic in her ability to go up against extremely established powerful figures in Colombia. She's made a lot of very powerful enemies."
A brief report cannot do justice to the implications of Betancourt's kidnapping for Colombia. But Schapiro believes, as do most observers, that the FARC has blown whatever credibility it once had as a political force. He predicts that the latest kidnapping will unintentionally contribute to the election of Álvaro Uribe Velez, a right-wing candidate whose proposal for an all-out military attack on the guerrillas is now picking up support from Pastrana and the U.S.