July 2, 2008
It is a wonderful day for freedom in Latin America! Fifteen hostages were rescued in the remote jungles of Colombia, including three Americans and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. It came about through a bit of trickery, as Colombian secret police posed as private helicopter pilots who were hired to transport the hostages from one rebel base camp to another. See BBC. Ms. Betancourt, who enjoys dual French-Colombian citizenship (through marriage), had been held as a captive since February 2002, when she was kidnapped while campaigning for the presidency. She and the other hostages were held incommunicado for most of the time since then. There have been rumors of a possible prisoner exchange since at least June 2006. In May 2007 there were reports that Ms. Betancourt's health was at risk, and that she had been shackled in chains after an escape attempt. In January this year several hostages were released, including one of her former aides.
In historical terms, this represents one of the biggest victories over terrorism in Latin America since the rescue of several dozen hostages at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru in April 1997. Because of the success of the sustained anti-guerrilla campaign by Colombia's military forces, the "Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia" (FARC) no longer have the power to intimidate the population via constant murders and bomb attacks. Because of this rescue mission, they no longer have much bargaining leverage left, which was the main reason for keeping the hostages. The Colombian government is to be heartily commended for this great achievement.
We still need to be careful about what lessons to draw from this episode, however. It is not a case of the "good guys always win in the end," but it does reveal the precarious state of the FARC rebel movement at this pivotal moment in history. For over a year, they have been losing battles, losing leaders, losing members, and losing public support. In part the march toward defeat is of their own doing, as their transformation from a revolutionary cause with a conscience into a brutal protection racket for drug smugglers forfeited what slim goodwill they once enjoyed. Certainly much of the credit goes to President Alvaro Uribe, who has pursued the subversive movement with relentless pressure, coupled with occasional gestures of conciliation. But the biggest reason for the decline of narco-terrorism in Colombia is because of the expanding economic opportunities afforded by foreign trade. That is why the pending free trade legislation, currently awaiting ratification by the U.S. Congress, is so important for the cause of Latin American development and hemispheric security.
Coincidentally, GOP presidential candidate John McCain was wrapping up a visit to Colombia at the time, highlighting his commitment to free trade with that troubled nation. His statement to the press show that he understands how trade policy is the best tool to fight the international drug trade; see johnmccain.com. He really gets the connection between open markets and human freedom. An editorial in Investor's Business Daily praised McCain for forthrightly declaring his support for free trade as an engine for growth at a time of recession, when many people let fear get them best of them. On this issue, there is a stark contrast with Barack Obama.