Ingrid Betancourt on Surviving in the Jungle

The jungle has often been a metaphor for the breakdown of morality. Think "Heart of Darkness" or "Aguirre: Wrath of God." And now we have a true story to add to those classics—that of Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian presidential candidate who was kidnapped and held for six years by guerrillas. Her new memoir "Even Silence Has an End" documents her captivity and the insights she gained into human psychology. "I realized that there are not good people and bad people; we all have in ourselves some good and some bad," she says.

In her Big Think interview, Betancourt tells us that keeping her sanity required actively disobeying her guards. "Once you don’t have freedom and you’re obliged to do many things you don’t want and it becomes a routine, then your identity is at stake because you can feel that you are not anymore yourself, that you are what they want you to be," she says. "You can lose yourself." Having their power stripped by the guards also inclined the prisoners to turn on each other, she says. "Many times I thought that we were behaving like kids in a school environment in the sense that there was very little perspective of our behavior."

Betancourt responds to the harsh criticism that some of her fellow captives levied at her in their own memoir. Some of the criticism was fueled by resentment, she says. "In the jungle we always had news about the hostages and only one name kept popping up all the time and it was my name and for some of my companions that was insulting.” They felt like they deserved equal coverage, and Betancourt found it difficult to convey that she didn't want to be the subject of so much press. But she also tells us that her and one of the other prisoners had "a character problem."

Betancourt also speaks about her native Colombia and the scourge of corruption. "The most important problem we have to address today is [that] corruption has turned to be a way of targeting the poor," she says. Colombia has one of the largest populations of displaced peoples in the world because warlords steal land from the peasants in order to get rich growing coca. "In Columbia today we have 16% of the population ... owning 90% of the land," she tells us.

Finally, she talks about how her experience has changed her life since being rescued. First of all, she realized she hated politics. She also realized that people have the freedom to determine what sort of person they want to become, but they so often settle for less than their potential. "This society we’re in allows us too much to be like cockroach," she says. "We’re too passive. We’re feeding on too much rubbish and I think we should strive to just shrug away that comfort zone and be able to get the most of each one of us, which means restructuring the way we deal with time and the priorities we have in life."

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