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Angel, or FARC in disguise?

Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba evokes strong reactions from supporters and detractors alike.

Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba listens to a question during talks with reporters in Madrid on July 11, 2008. (Andrea Comas/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia — She’s been described as an angel. A brave woman who makes Herculean efforts to gain the freedom of others. A devil in disguise who promotes the causes of rebel groups. A traitor who hurls critiques of the government.

Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian opposition senator, is one of the country’s most polemic figures. Predicated by many to be this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, her nomination both inspired hope among her supporters for renewed prospects for peace and triggered venomous reactions, bringing to light the deep divisions over how to find peace here.

Cordoba was nominated for the prize in recognition of her efforts to seek a peaceful solution to Colombia’s decades-long conflict and her role in negotiating the release of hostages held for years by guerrillas in the country’s punishing jungles.

She has had unrivaled success in securing the release of 12 hostages since 2007, politicians and armed forces members among them.

“When I was kidnapped, there was a moment of great desperation because there was no light for one to think about liberation,” said Alan Jara, a former governor held hostage for over seven years. But in 2008, he heard over the radio that Senator Cordoba was pushing for his and other hostages’ release. “In this moment, Piedad became an angel who could carry me to freedom.”

The Medellin native of mixed white and Afro-Colombian parents has the ability to incite strong reaction from both ends of the political spectrum. Articles on the web announcing that Cordoba was likely to become the first Colombian to win the Peace Prize prompted thousands of comments within a day, accusing the potential prize of becoming a triumph for terrorism or bringing shame to Colombia, for example. In addition to the hundreds of Facebook groups already dedicated in support or against Cordoba, a new one calling for the rejection of her nomination drew over 50,000 members.

The 54-year-old lawyer has long pushed for a humanitarian agreement whereby kidnap victims of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest rebel group, would be exchanged for jailed guerrilla members.

But the proposal grates against the hardline policies of President Alvaro Uribe, who has argued that negotiations would only legitimize the FARC, and has instead opted to defeat Latin America’s oldest rebel group by military offensives and encouraging defection of its members.

Cordoba has accused Uribe of stonewalling efforts to peacefully end the armed conflict and controlling “who lives and who dies” when he has rejected or slowed hostage releases because the FARC’s offers hinge on the president’s appointment of Cordoba as an interlocutor.