Both Ingrid Betancourt and Oliver Stone have got some explaining to do.
Betancourt must face the wrath of old media (“Shameful,” blasted leading newsweekly Semana) and new (“We are sick of Ingrid Betancourt SHE IS CRAZY,” cried one Facebook group), following announcements that she planned to sue the Colombian state for damages after her 2002 kidnapping.
Stone, meanwhile, is facing down his own old-media critics, following skeptical reviews of his new documentary, “South of the Border,” published by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the New Republic, the Village Voice and, um, Perez Hilton. But Stone has some defenders in new media, and progressive outlets like the Huffington Post and other independent sites have published their own, more positive takes on the film.
For Betancourt, at least, this new scandal makes it especially hard to remember why she was once admired. And, admittedly, once upon a time you could probably find a few things to admire about Ingrid Betancourt. No wilting flower, she is unabashedly ambitious and polemical, which can be a relief in a country where too many women aspire to do nothing more than pump out a few babies before the age of 21. Distant history as it may seem, politically she was once relatively popular. She won a huge numbers of votes when she stood for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1994 and the Senate in 1998, running on an anti-corruption and anti-narco platform, a dangerous thing at the time.
But with the announcement that she is seeking up to COP13 billion (about $8.2 million) in damages, now all Colombia remembers are the very worst qualities of Betancourt. “Self righteous,” “naïve,” “ungrateful,” “hypocrite,” are all words that disbelieving Colombians have used to describe her.
Why is there such ire directed at Betancourt? The outrage is well justified. But I think there may be a more complex dynamic explaining the disdain that many Colombians feel for Betancourt. As a public figure and presidential candidate, she understandably was one of the most high-profile hostages ever held by the FARC. But other Colombian politicians have also been held hostage, by the guerrillas, paramilitaries or drug cartels, and none have inspired as much fascination as Betancourt.
Part of this fascination speaks to the deep unease that many Colombians feel about their fundamentally unjust, deeply divided class system. You couldn’t find a better representation of the Bogota patrician elite than Betancourt – she speaks four languages, teaches aerobics and dined with Fernando Botero and Pablo Neruda while young. She is fair skinned and attractive. She does not look inwardly, to Latin American society and culture, to define her identity, but looks outwardly to Europe, specifically France. I think these factors explain why there was and still is a fixation on her, compared to the other political or high-profile hostages held by the FARC.
Betancourt is a walking and talking reminder of the fundamentally unjust nature of Colombia’s conflict. As it is with most wars, Colombia’s conflict has overwhelmingly affected the poor, the peasants, the Indians, the Afro-Colombians, and the still poorer. It is only when the violence and the conflict starts infringing on the middle and upper class that much hand-wringing and sweating ensues. This happened when Betancourt was held hostage, when public opinion fixated on her, as opposed to the many, many military and police officials (most descended from campesino stock) also in FARC hands. This is happening in Medellin now, where the 2010 homicide rate is outrageously higher than 2009, yet hasn’t caused much outrage, as most of the killings are still concentrated in the hillside comunas.
The hatred that Betancourt inspires partly reminds me of a good line from “Trainspotting” – when justifying why he hates his friends, Ewan McGregor muses “they reminded me so much of myself, I could hardly bear to look at them.” Betancourt is a reminder of the kind of upper-class, rich, Euroclass-citizen that Colombians detest – but she is also a reminder of the many insecurities many still feel about Colombia’s class system.
No less polemical than Betancourt is the new Oliver Stone documentary on Hugo Chavez, “South of the Border.” I have not seen it, nor have I seen “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the film documenting reported U.S. involvement in the 2002 attempted coup against Chavez, which seems to be an unofficial prequel to “South of the Border” (Stone & co. had no involvement in the production of “The Revolution…”). Publications like the Times have complained that Stone has played fast and loose with the facts, allegations that Stone has extensively rebutted. Others have cheered that here at last is a work depicting another perspective of Chavez unreported by the “mainstream media.”
I can’t comment on a movie I haven’t seen. I do know that in 2002, Stone made the following remarks about the FARC to U.K. newspaper The Observer: “I do think that by the standards of Western civilization, [the FARC] go too far, they kidnap innocent people. On the other hand, they’re fighting a desperate battle against highly financed, American-support forces … I think they are heroic to fight for what they believe in and die for it, as was Castro in the hills of Cuba.”
Comments like these display a disconnection from reality that I find uncomfortable and wrong. I’m all for polemical documentaries that attempt to show another side of Chavez and all that, but I guess I suspect that Stone is living in the same, weird fantasy world that Betancourt must be. You know, the world where it is ok for Betancourt to sue the Colombian state, and it is ok to talk about Chavez without attempting to address the support and refuge that FARC rebels have found in Venezuela (maybe this is addressed in the movie, I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound like a major talking point, which I think it should be).
For me, this seems to be the most pertinent lesson to draw from all the Stone-Betancourt hullabaloo. Both are very strong-minded individuals and both approach the world determined to make their own reality. This is partly why both inspire such strong and polarized reactions from conservatives and liberals alike. It is disconcerting to deal with people who behave as if there is no objective truth, besides that which is painted by their personal ideology.
Well, maybe if “South of the Border” opens at an Exito near me, I will go see it. Maybe I will browse through a copy of Betancourt’s memoirs if they are ever published. Stone-World and Betancourt-World seem like nice places to visit. But I wouldn’t want to live there.