Angel, or FARC in disguise?

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.

Jara remembers a FARC commander telling him that “if it wouldn’t be Piedad Cordoba, there wouldn’t be a handover.”

It is that confidence the FARC have placed in Cordoba that has, on the one hand, allowed for the release of several kidnapping victims, but on the other incited mistrust of Cordoba among many Colombians who accuse her of being a FARC ally, arguing she helps improve the rebels’ image when she facilitates hostage liberations.

“Her relationship with the FARC is something that unsettles us and worries us very much,” said Senator Juan Carlos Velez, of Uribe’s “U” party. After Cordoba traveled to a FARC camp to discuss a humanitarian exchange, photos that emerged of her with the former leader of the rebel group, Raul Reyes, set off more accusations that she was a FARC member playing the role of senator. Her friendship with the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, has drawn further ire.

Email correspondence between her and Reyes was allegedly discovered by authorities when Reyes' computer was confiscated following a military bombing that killed him. Based on this, she is under investigation at the Attorney General's office for complicity with a guerrilla.

“Piedad represents an independent voice that is trustworthy for the FARC, but that doesn’t mean she is of the FARC,” warns Gerson Arias, an analyst with the business-sponsored research institute Ideas for Peace.

Many accuse Cordoba of political opportunism in trying to secure hostage releases, while to others it is clear her risky trips to FARC jungle camps and her firm position on a humanitarian exchange, unpopular with the government, have come at great personal and political sacrifice.

“To work for freedom and peace under these circumstances is not a political cause that produces votes,” Lara explained, adding that Cordoda's activities put her at considerable personal risk.

In 1999, Cordoba was kidnapped for several weeks by Carlos Castano, the former leader of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the umbrella group of right-wing paramilitaries who have officially demobilized. Following her release, she sought asylum in Canada but returned to Colombia to resume her political life. She later survived two assassination attempts.

Had Cordoba won the Nobel Peace Prize, many had hoped it would draw more international attention to the armed conflict in Colombia and build support for a political solution. “We have to finish this conflict with words and with dialogue,” Cordoba said.

She is not concerned by the myriad reactions that her continuing efforts will likely provoke. “If I have to return to the FARC and have a photo taken, I’ll do it again.”