Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia

by Ingrid Betancourt

Published by HarperCollins//Ecco

228 pages, 2002

Buy it online



The Bite of Oxygen

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Even prior to her kidnapping on February 23, 2002, the title of Ingrid Betancourt's memoir felt ominous. Until Death Do Us Part. This from the Colombian senator and presidential hopeful who has lived with threats against her life for almost as long as she has been campaigning towards corruption-free government in her country.

In more Northern climes where even corrupt politicians are forced to wear a toque of respectability, Betancourt's Colombia reads like a society penned by William Gibson: Children starving on the street, elections where 40,000 votes can go missing without causing comment and where sicarios, "are young men on motorcycles who live in Colombia's poorest neighborhoods, and they're hired every day to kill people for ridiculously small sums of money."

A physical description of Bogotá -- Colombia's capital and Betancourt's birthplace -- early in the book captures both the beauty and the despair of the place in a single line: "The austerity of the mountains (Bogotá rises wildly, furiously, at an altitude of 8,500 feet); the mad bustle of its streets; its skies, which are often leaden; its devastating rains; and, always, the dark melancholy in the eyes of its citizens."

The daughter of Colombia's ambassador to UNESCO -- who himself could have had a shot at the presidency in the 1970s -- and a beauty contestant-turned-social-activist, Ingrid Betancourt was raised with both luxury and privilege. The writer Gabriel García Márquez, the painter Botero, the poet Pablo Neruda and Misael Pastrana -- then president of Colombia -- were all among the guests received at the family's home in Neuilly, France while Betancourt was a child.

Writing always in the present tense, Betancourt describes the intelligent, impressionable young girl she was hiding under the piano one night to listen to the adult conversation. Taking all that is said quite literally, she says she could "see my country sinking, people dying. I often return to my hiding place under the piano, and sometimes emerge with my temples burning, my stomach in knots, ready to burst into tears -- so awful, truly terrifying, do I find my country's fate. Today, I believe that my political vocation was born under this grand piano at the beginning of the 1970s."

Young Ingrid followed her parents back to Colombia, but returned to France in 1980 to attend L'École de Sciences Politques, the top venue for political science students in Paris. While there, she met and fell in love with her first husband and the father of her children, Fabrice, a French diplomat. The young matron found herself following Fabrice from posting to posting: each new place more desirable and glamorous than the last. Quebec, Ecuador and the Seychelles, where she found herself "in a tourist paradise. I'm the wife of a French diplomat, living in a splendid house, with nothing to do except take Melanie for walks and give orders for the dinners and receptions we organize from time to time. I feel out of place. My happiness seems more and more meaningless, even indecent, because it has so little to do with my own people."

In 1990 Betancourt stopped resisting what she felt to be her commitment and returned to Colombia, alone. Twenty-nine years old, she felt "strong, self-confident and ready to fight." Three years later, in 1994, she was fighting: Betancourt campaigned for a spot on the legislature and won. She summed up her platform in three words: "Fight against corruption." The symbol for her first campaign was powerful in its shock value, "because no one can be indifferent to it."

"Voting for us," Betancourt quotes herself from a conversation at the time, "is like putting on a condom, protecting the democracy against the disease that is corruption."

Her election as a representative was followed by a successful run at Colombia's senate at the head of Partido Verde Oxigen. Oxygen because, "it speaks for the environment, but also it points out the suffocation imposed by the other parties, and the hope for release that we bring."

Ingrid Betancourt has been described as everything from the arrogant daughter of the ruling class to politically naive to the would-be savior of her country. It's possible that all of these things are, to a certain degree, true. It is also true that she has brought a ray of hope to politically battered Colombia: a fact evidenced by the support she has garnered in an incredibly short period.

Is Betancourt campaigning in Until Death Do Us Part? Oh, probably. After all, for a political animal born, bred and trained, campaigning from every available platform becomes second nature. What comes through, however, is Betancourt's passion and her inability to compromise on her larger vision.

Until Death Do Us Part is a compelling book. It reads, at times, like fiction. The well-bred girl making the perfect match and throwing it all aside in order, she feels, to save her country. A knowledge -- or even an interest -- in Colombian politics is not required. In simple -- and often quite lovely -- prose, the book is a true life political thriller, a deeply personal tale and -- at its core -- the story of a courageous woman making difficult choices.

"Now that I've arrived at this point," Betancourt writes in Until Death Do Us Part, "will they kill me too?" One hopes, having read her frank and generous book and considering her current perilous position, that they do not. | October 2002


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.