The Short Road From Hostage to Envoy

Fernando Araújo will be the international face of a government whipsawed by a widening scandal linking members of Congress, the head of the intelligence service and other officials with right-wing paramilitary groups.
Fernando Araújo will be the international face of a government whipsawed by a widening scandal linking members of Congress, the head of the intelligence service and other officials with right-wing paramilitary groups. (By Fernando Vergara -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia, March 5 -- Just weeks ago, Fernando Araújo's only connection to the outside world was his shortwave radio. In six years as a hostage of Marxist rebels, his life had been reduced to a grim routine of forced marches, a diet of soggy beans and rice and the realization that freedom might never come.

Now, after a confused and miraculous dash to freedom that has captivated Colombians, Araújo has become foreign minister, a critical post in a country highly dependent on foreign aid, especially from Washington. When President Bush arrives here on Sunday to meet with President Álvaro Uribe, he will also meet a man who is a potent symbol for the hundreds of hostages, including three Americans, still in rebel hands.

"I'm not a symbol of kidnapping," Araújo explained. "I'm a symbol of liberty."

In the two months since his escape, Araújo has scrambled to catch up with a world of new technology and shifting geopolitics. He has learned about iPods, and that cellphones take pictures. He has marveled that Google Earth displays the mountains where he was held. He has also gone through emotional lows.

"There are things that hurt, and things that surprise," said Araújo, who was sworn in last week. "What's hurt me? The people who died, the friends and acquaintances I had. For me, they all died in one month because I learned about them all in a short period of time."

He also had to face what he long feared -- that his wife had left him, a revelation he called his first painful blow since emerging from the bush haggard and dehydrated on Jan. 5.

In a relaxed meeting last week with a group of foreign correspondents, Araújo, 51, bespectacled and trim in a blue pinstripe suit, was affable and frank, often answering questions with panache. When an attractive female reporter asked him if he expected to fall in love again, a reference to the loss of his wife, he quipped: "Of course. Are you single?"

But Araújo also talked of having to undergo physical and psychological exams while adjusting to his newfound freedom. "Sometimes I dream about my kidnappers, and I have nightmares," he acknowledged.

Araújo was 45, a successful businessman and former minister of development in President Andrés Pastrana's administration when two men forced him into a car on a street in Cartagena on Dec. 4, 2000. For most of the next six years, he was transported from one camp to another in the Maria Mountains, a heavily forested coastal range laden with land mines.

His only contact with those he left behind were the radio programs in which the families of kidnapping victims talk to their loved ones, filling them with hope. He exercised religiously. He also listened to the news programs of Caracol Radio, Colombia's main network, the BBC, Radio Netherlands and others.

"It was a way to stay busy, to carry out mental exercises, to follow those themes," he said. "For me, it was very important."

In December, Uribe contacted Araújo's family to inform them that military intelligence had located the camp where he was being held. Army commanders wanted to attempt a rescue but needed the family's permission, because rebels have killed captives in the past when the military has approached. The family approved, and on Dec. 31, helicopters carrying troops descended on the camp.

"When the helicopters attacked, I felt it was the chance I had been waiting for," Araújo said.

With the guerrillas momentarily distracted, Araújo dashed into the bush, where he spent the next five days wandering, eventually reaching the hamlet of San Agustin. He approached a farmer, who led him to the outside world. None of his captors was ever arrested.

As foreign minister, Araújo is expected to speak passionately about a crime that the largest rebel group here, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has long used to generate ransom money and wield leverage to win the release of jailed guerrillas.

Two rebel groups and assorted criminal organizations hold hundreds of people against their will, most for ransom. But the FARC, as the main rebel group is known, is also holding about 60 big-name captives as bargaining chips.

Araújo was among them. The rebels' most valuable hostage is Ingrid Betancourt, a senator with Colombian and French citizenship, who has been held for five years; at time of her abduction, she was a presidential candidate. Also in FARC hands are three Americans -- Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes -- who were working for the Pentagon when their plane went down in rebel territory in 2003.

Yolanda Pulecio, Betancourt's mother, said she does not know Araújo personally and is unclear whether his appointment will benefit the families of kidnapping victims, who have clashed with Uribe over the government's inability to reach a deal with rebels.

"He knows what kidnapping is, what families suffer, what this signifies, and also the great danger that a rescue can mean for the victims," said Pulecio. "I can't say if he'll help us or not help us. For the government, his appointment helps its image."

Araújo said one of his most important tasks will be to explain the difficult challenges the Uribe government faces in reaching a deal with the rebels. "The important thing is to change the perception and show the world that those who are responsible for these people not being freed are the kidnappers themselves," said Araújo.

Araújo will also be the international face of a government that has been whipsawed by a widening scandal that has linked several members of Congress, the head of the intelligence service and other officials with right-wing paramilitary groups. Indeed, Araújo was named foreign minister because the brother of the former foreign minister, María Consuelo Araújo, who is not related, has been charged with collaborating with paramilitary groups.

Araújo might seem an odd choice for the post. He's missed key events in recent world history, from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He was in guerrilla hands as President Hugo Chávez consolidated power in neighboring Venezuela and when Uribe rose to power. Araújo also does not speak English fluently, usually imperative for an official who will make frequent trips to Washington.

He did not play down the shortcomings but said he is scrambling to prepare by reading books on diplomacy and talking to former foreign ministers. And he noted that, over the past few years, the radio programs he listened to helped him keep up with at least some current events.

"Maybe the six years as a captive prepared me to be foreign minister," Araújo said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company