Big Think Interview With Ingrid Betancourt

A conversation with the former Colombian presidential candidate and political hostage.
  • Transcript


Ingrid Betancourt: My name is Ingrid Betancourt. I wrote "Even Silence Has an End." I was abducted by the FARC, a revolutionary group in Colombia, and held hostage for six years.

Question: What did your experience as a captive teach you about human psychology?

Ingrid Betancourt:  Well I think that what I realized is that there are not good people and bad people.  We all have in ourselves some good and some bad and I could see a pattern of behavior in the guards that were holding me hostage.  I had groups that will shift every two months, but every time they will behave the same way.  At the beginning they would be respectful and trying to be helpful and behaving with compassion, but after two or three weeks, this would just completely change and they will be behaving in a very nasty, cruel way and sometimes sadistic too. And what I think is that when you have some situations in which you have some factors that come together the bad in human condition just bumps up and I would say that when you have a very disbalanced relationship... These guys were armed.  They could kill us.  There were no witnesses.  There was a hierarchy where the guards could just hide behind that hierarchy thinking they were not responsible for what they were doing because they were obeying orders.  And then the other factor was the pressure of the group.  When all those factors are combined then you have a shift in the behavior of people and it unleashes the sadistic part of the human being.

There was a study in Stanford done in the '70s where they had taken a group of students—people that were not traumatized, I mean good healthy nice people—and they arbitrarily divided them in two groups.  One were, let's say, the guards and the other were the prisoners. And after a while what was incredible is that knowing they were friends and knowing it was just a study and it was a fake situation they began acting abusively the guards and submissively the prisoners. And that is something that shows the limits of our behavior. And of course the environmental and the situation does a lot into how we behave, but I think there is also one thing, which is character and principles because I could see some of the guards that would have a special character—more tough, more independent, less let’s say sensitive from pressure—and they could just even though they were pushed to act in an aggressive or harsh way they would try to control themselves and act in a human way. Human as, let’s say, respectful and not abusive. 

So that is why I think there is limits to the assumption that wherever you are, the situation in a way tells you how to behave.  I think that for example as a prisoner of course I was pressured to become very submissive and in a way the syndrome of Stockholm is when you shift position and then you become like you’re supposed to act, which is accepting the authority of those who have abducted you. And well in my case I really tried all the time to just prevent myself to fall into that and it was hard.  It was hard not only because of course of the punishment that would mean coming from the guards, but also because of the reaction of some of my companions that had fallen into this submissive way of thinking and that saw me as a threat for them, or as somebody that could harm them because I wouldn’t play the game.

Question: Did the power dynamic with your guards affect how you related to your fellow captives?

Ingrid Betancourt:  Yes, we saw that.  We saw between the group of hostages two things.  First that the humiliation and cruelty we were being subjected to, we would pass it to the ones living in the same condition. So, in a way if we had been treated in a cruel way we would be bitter and cruel to the ones beside us. And that's something I saw many times. And the other thing was that it was easier for the hostage to forgive the guards that were being horrible to us—I mean cruel, humiliating, sometimes violent and sadistic, sometimes. But that you could forgive easier than you could forgive a companion that was a hostage like you and that had done really nothing.  Like for example, wouldn’t have said hello to you in the morning or wouldn’t have helped you in something you needed and that resentfulness would be very difficult to administrate in the sense that I could see that some of my fellow hostages would forgive the guards and not our companions.

Question: How did you manage to stay sane after six years of captivity in the jungle?

Ingrid Betancourt:  Well I think that the first thing that you have to do is to get in control of your emotions and of yourself because you have the impression, you’re scattered, that you don’t know how to react.  You lose the compass of what is good and bad and what is good in the jungle with the guards is bad outside.  I mean if you begin to have a relationship where you’re doing what the guards want, and once you’re out you will see that as a treason, a treason to your country, a treason to yourself, a treason to everybody, so you have to be very cautious on what is the perspective you’re looking at yourself, and you have always to see yourself like from the outside. 

Then you have to just cope with the time because the days are endless, so you have to fill those days with things that will keep you on focus and for me things like working out, doing physical exercise to keep my body in shape or spiritual exercises like trying to just be very thoughtful of what I was doing and have like a meditation to just try to ponder what was right and what was wrong in terms of myself, not of what the others were expecting from me.  Reading books was very important.  We didn’t have much books, but I had at least three that I could read.  The first was the Bible that I read many times from...  It was my treasure.  I could lose everything but my Bible.  It was always at the reach of my hand, whatever I would do because sometimes we had to run because the Army was near and we couldn’t grab our things and it happened lots of times we had to leave everything behind us and just run, so my Bible was always there, so I could just run with the Bible. And I had two other books that I remember.  One was one book of John Grisham, "The Street Lawyer."  It was a book that I could read in English.  It was given to me from one of my fellow hostages, an American friend of mine Tom that just was very generous and gave me that book to read and I think I read it so many times that I learned it by heart and the other was "Harry Potter in Spanish and that was important because then it takes you to a place where you’re in a civilized world again. 

The problem is that once you’re in the jungle you don’t have your normal boundaries.  You don’t have a bed.  You don’t have a house.  You don’t have a kitchen.  You don’t have a bath.  You cannot address your body needs in a private manner.  I mean there is a hole in the ground and you have to pee and everything in that hole in front of everybody. And of course imagine what that does to your psyche.  I mean it’s very difficult to just adjust.  So reading was important.  Doing things like weaving, I learned to weave belts.  Whatever you could do with your hands was important because it kept you in a motion of being able to produce something, and producing something kept you balanced in a way. 

Question: Why was it so important to insist on being addressed by name rather than by number?

Ingrid Betancourt: I think what it prevented me from was to just lose respect to myself and you see for me that was the most important thing because I could see how they were treating us.  There was humiliations, cruelty, abuse, violence. And they were all the time trying to put to fight the prisoners one against the other, filling us with wrong information about the others or giving privileges to some so that the others would feel jealous and would react. And I could see how they were manipulating us. And for me the very important thing was never to forget that they had no right to have me there, that my duty was to escape and that I needed to get back to my family and to my children no matter what. And that I could not accept to just see them as an authority, that I had to always keep in mind that I had to rebel and to keep my distance and to protect my soul because the core of the problem is dignity. 

You see the thing is that 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—and you can lose yourself.  You can begin doing things that you wouldn’t do in other cases, in other situations. And for me one of the biggest problems is because I wanted to get back to my life I always thought "Everything I do here I have to be able to look at myself backwards and to look at my past and not feel ashamed." Because I knew that that was going to be a problem for me to just feel that I had not acted in a way that I could be comfortable with afterwards.

Question: Were you depicted unfairly by your fellow captives in their memoir “Out of Captivity”?

Ingrid Betancourt: I think that there are reasons for having depicted what we lived the way they did and actually I think we have to just separate perhaps... there were three Americans writing the same book.  Two wrote it in a way and one was very hard let’s say, very harsh.  I think that, of course, we lived very difficult moments.  That is for sure.  But I think there are other things.  I think there is this sensation of being deprived of something that you are entitled to have.  What happened I think is that 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 because, "Why is she all the time referred to and what about us? We are entitled to have the same attention." 

And it was difficult for me to explain to them that I didn’t want to have that, you know, exposure.  I haven’t done anything to have it and I didn’t want it, and I couldn’t control it. But for them I think it was something that hurt them a lot. And so the reactions were always aggressive.  They would turn off the radio or they would aggress me verbally saying, “Do you think you’re better than us because you’re in the radio?”  Or, “Do you think you are a princess?”  Or, “Do you think you…?”  And those kinds of attitudes, of course, were painful and hurt me. And perhaps I didn’t react in a good way because I thought it was unfair.  I thought they were mean and it hurt me, but I think I didn’t understand that for them not having their names in the news was another kind of injustice and a denying of their identity. So now I think that I understand what they went through, but at the time it was difficult for me to understand that it was hard for them to just cope with that reality.

But there we other things.  I think we were with especially one of them.  We had a character problem.  I mean he would react in a way that I wouldn’t and my reactions didn’t satisfy him.  For example, with the roll call.  For them not answering by like everybody with a number was a proof of arrogance.  For me it wasn’t arrogance.  For me it was because I couldn’t do anything... I mean, I didn’t want to play that game.

So the way we would judge the other was from different perspectives.  There were things that they would do that I wouldn’t... I didn’t appreciate and there were things I would do that they didn’t appreciate and of course we also were fed with lies. And I think they were also a victim of that manipulation. So for me what they wrote is the result of all those situations and I think I had the opportunity to just let things just smooth in my heart because I wrote my book, I mean, much later than they did.  They just arrived from freedom and they were already writing the book, so had more perspective I think on things.

But I don’t want to judge them because I think we all are entitled to our truth and if they saw me like that well the only thing I can do is to apologize, you see? Because I never would want anybody to suffer because of me, but I realize that we were in a condition where I mean everything was upside-down.  Perhaps if we had known ourselves in a place like we are, you and me here, the relationship would be good and different.

Question: How did your experience in the jungle change your politics?

Ingrid Betancourt:  Well it changed a lot because I realized that I hated politics.  I mean that is you know...  I realized being in the jungle that what I had thought I could do, I mean changing the way politics were being done in Colombia, was not possible the way I wanted to do it—by confronting, by denouncing.  I was struggling against corruption and the only thing… my only weapon was to put the truth in the medias and of course it made me win lots of enemies that didn’t want me to just denounce what was happening. And I'm not sure that was the most helpful way of doing things.  I thought also that we should change laws and I don’t think today that laws can change really the reality of a country. 

I think today that if I want, for example—if my goal is to change Colombia, which it is because I really think Columbia has to change in many, many ways—I think it has to be a very profound, nearly spiritual maturing process in the Colombian society because I think you have to first be aware of what's happening and it’s not easy because many people don’t want to see what's happening.  They want to stay in their comfort zone.  Once you’re aware and you admit that you want to be aware, you want to be wanting to change, which is not evident either because some people are having benefits, have interests of not changing the situation, so you need to produce a desire for change and you have to... and only when the society gets together and asks for those changes then you can deliver. And I don’t think you can do it the other way around, so I'm just waiting to see if Colombians can change in their hearts being more solidarity, more compassionate to the others and wanting really to see deep changes in how we rule the country. 

Question: In other words, Colombia needs grassroots change?

Ingrid Betancourt:  Yes, exactly.  Thank you.  That is a very good way to put it short.  I'm lingering too much, but that is the way.  It’s a grassroots thing.  It doesn’t come from the top.  It has to come from the people.

Question: What is the most pressing political issue in Colombia?

Ingrid Betancourt:  Well in Colombia we have had this humongous security problem because we have a war going on between paramilitaries, which are from the right wing allied with the drug traffickers.  The guerrillas, which are left wing, but are drug traffickers themselves. And the drug traffickers alone, which don’t disguise themselves into politics, they just do their business. And this has turned upside-down the whole society because to have this happening you need corruption.  You need corruption as a systemic way of handling public issues and as long as it’s going to be like this things will not be easy to change. 

Now I think that the most important problem we have to address today is the social problem because corruption has turned to be a way of targeting the poor.  I mean the poor are the ones who have been the victims of this war.  Sometimes you hear in the United States that in Columbia there is a war between rich and poor, between people that are defending the poor and the rich. And that is not the case.  That is not the case.  What we have in Colombia is a war against the poor and the guerillas from the left side are against the poor.  They use them, but to just continue doing what they do, which is drug trafficking. The paramilitaries are against the poor and they use them and they chase them and they take away from them their land. And so you have four million displaced people in Colombia in the cities.  We are the country with the most... the biggest number of displaced in the world. So this is a huge social problem that is disguised like if it was a war, but at the end what you see is warlords trying to take the land from those humble peasants and getting richer and the numbers are very explicit. 

In Colombia today we have 16% of the population, which is a very small amount of the population owning 90% of the land and 20 years ago it wasn’t like that, but it has been the concentration of ownership of land has been getting worse and worse in Colombia due to this war against the poor.

Question: Are things getting better or worse?

Ingrid Betancourt:  Well I think the army, the Colombian army, is doing a great job.  They’re really asphyxiating the FARC. And I think it could happen that we see the defeat, the military defeat of the FARC, which would be very good for Colombia because that would one problem less. But the social problem will still be there to be addressed. 

Now I think that things are getting better for a part of the population.  I think that the security in the cities is a lot better, but I think that outside the cities the peasants have no security, have no protection of the justice, so that I think is something we have to address.  Now the new president of Colombia I think he is a good man and I hope he is going to address these issues and he is going to do a good job.  That’s my hope. 

Question: What idea has most changed your life?

Ingrid Betancourt: Well I think that one of the things that helped me the most in this new life of freedom is the consciousness that there is a freedom that nobody can take away from you, which is to decide what kind of person you want to be. And of course in the jungle chained and subjected to many things that was obvious, but here I find that many times we have so many reasons to just accept the least of ourselves that we can be... there are two like poles in a human being; one who wants to be a cockroach and wants to just you know get it easy and go and feed with rubbish and one that wants to be like an eagle and have perspective and things and fly away very high. And we have to decide which one we want to prefer in our lives. And I think that this society we’re in allows us too much to be like cockroach.  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, so being what we want to be I think should be something that we should keep in mind.

Recorded on October 19, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller