Mar 24

The talks between the Colombian government and the ELN guerrillas, which have been limping along for nearly three years now, are in big trouble.

This is despite a minor breakthrough last December, when the Uribe government quietly dropped a demand that a cease-fire agreement require all ELN fighters to concentrate themselves in specific zones (something the guerrillas had regarded to be tantamount to surrender). Despite this advance, the ELN have simply not contacted the Colombian government since November, when Álvaro Uribe “fired” Hugo Chávez from his role as an authorized facilitator of talks with both the FARC and ELN guerrillas.

Here is a translation of a rather pessimistic overview of the current situation from Luis Eduardo Celis of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a Colombian think-tank that has followed the ELN process very closely. (The organization was founded in the mid-1990s by ELN dissidents who demobilized in 1994.) It was posted last week to the Colombian online publication Actualidad Colombiana. Passages in boldface reflect our emphasis.

Is the ELN saying goodbye to President Uribe?
Luis Eduardo Celis Méndez, advisor, Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris
Actualidad Colombiana 468 (March 19-April 2, 2008)

Last January 11, President Chávez proposed before Venezuela’s National Assembly the granting of political status and recognition of belligerency to the FARC and the ELN. Through a public communiqué, the ELN Central Command gave its view of this proposal. This news was made known through a video sent to the Telesur network, in which Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, this organization’s maximum commander, reads the communiqué.

The terms used there deserved to be carefully evaluated. “The ELN cheers the Venezuelan proposal to give the Colombian guerrillas recognition as belligerent forces, and is willing to work to make this initiative a reality. We hope that the international community will join this effort for peace in Colombia,” the communiqué reads.

By now we can evaluate the call on the international community to support the idea of granting belligerency status to insurgent organizations: only the President of Nicaragua showed any affinity for President Chávez’s proposal, and nobody else made any similar pronouncements. Very much to the contrary, the European Union reaffirmed its consideration that both the FARC and the ELN should remain on the terrorist lists as long as they fail to show respect for International Humanitarian Law. For their part, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil have been prudent about giving signals of approval, as has Argentina. In general, the pronouncements that have been issued do not view the proposal as appropriate.

Among sectors of the international community, as well as among some political analysts and national social initiatives, it is argued that this is a good moment for the ELN to sit down at the table with the government of President Uribe. That there is a political “window of opportunity,” given that a situation of polarization exists with regard to the FARC. It is believed that President Uribe could be willing to carry out a negotiation including issues that are important to the ELN. In fact, in December they privately indicated their willingness not to demand fighters’ concentration and identification if the ELN presented proposals sufficient to guarantee a cease fire and proceeded to the signing of a “basic accord.”

Since the crisis begun with the termination of President Chávez’s mediating role, the ELN has not had any contact with the government. Now, with this January 20 communiqué, the question that remains is whether the ELN has made a decision not to return to the table unless President Chávez’s role is “re-established” by Uribe – something that, judging from events of the last two months, is not going to happen. The distancing between Venezuela and Colombia is so great that in Caracas, it is said that this open confrontation could be the “catastrophe” that President Uribe mentioned last November as a requisite for him to consider running for a third potential term.

We have insisted that the ELN acts according to rational calculations, that it it has considered a strategy for action, and that everything would seem to indicate that it has joined itself to a stable alliance with President Chávez and, in an informal way, to the FARC’s strategy of staying totally distant from overall negotiation processes with the government of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. We could be wrong. We hope that, indeed, we are, and that the ELN-government process is renewed in the coming weeks. But all signals indicate that this will not happen, since it would seem that for the moment everything must go through Caracas.  Of course, these dynamic situations could change, but there is little reason to expect a helpful atmosphere nor actors with enough political weight to get involved and breath some new political air into the situation. An aggravating factor is that we are almost at the midpoint of President Uribe’s term and his 80% popularity rating would seem to give him little urgency to modify his strategy.

The ELN should be very clear that to get up from this table, one in which it has explicit political recognition as an armed political force, and in which it was seeking to create a scenario to debate issues of fundamental importance for the nation, would carry a high cost in terms of its credibility at the national and international level, as well as in its strategy of resistance. The war against them will worsen and the humanitarian cost will be permanent, the weakening of its structures could be significant and, perhaps more worrying, its involvement in the dynamics of narcotrafficking could accelerate and place it in directly in the way of the United States’ anti-drug agenda. Another issue, even more delicate, is a failure to build a broad consensus about the complicated agenda of truth, justice and reparations, and a failure to think of negotiations in a country where recognition of armed struggle is infinitely, residually small. A country in which the civilian left itself, in the framework of the 1991 Constitution, feels the guerrillas are a pebble in its shoe as it approaches the 2010 elections.

If the ELN leaves the negotiation table and does not choose to deal with the real difficulties that sprang from the termination of President Hugo Chávez’s facilitation, it will be losing a historic opportunity for a negotiation. New cycles of regional wars will come, as well as a public opinion climate highly favorable to the effort to annihilate them militarily. Those of us who support the mechanism of dialogues and concertations will return to the desert, trying to rebuild the situation, always amid increasing incredulity on the part of those who tell us, “I told you, the ELN isn’t interested in any negotiation.” And yes, everything would seem to indicate that they are not; we hope that we are wrong.

Jul 27

ELN and government negotiators in Havana, October 2006In a video interview we posted at the end of May, analyst and former ELN guerrilla leader León Valencia predicted that the government and ELN would achieve a cease of hostilities by July. It is now July 27th, though, and there is no cease-fire agreement after seven rounds of talks. Government and guerrilla representatives are to sit down again in Havana on August 20.

“Distrust continues between the two sides,” reads a strongly worded July 24 statement from the ELN, whose leaders insist that they are ready to sign a cessation of hostilities.

The Colombian government, led by chief negotiator (or “High Commissioner for Peace”) Luis Carlos Restrepo, is insisting that the ELN concentrate its fighters in a specific zone or zones, so that the cessation of hostilites can be fully verified. It is “impossible to go forward with a process,” says Restrepo, if the ELN “keeps insisting on being a clandestine organization, which keeps financing itself through illegal activities and combining forms of struggle.”

The ELN refuses to concentrate its forces in an easily verifiable zone, which it considers tantamount to surrender. The guerrillas want a cease-fire that allows their organization to survive if talks should fall through. Should the negotiations fail, the ELN does not want to find itself trapped and surrounded by the security forces in its designated zone or zones, and does not want to have to recover control of territory that it vacated when it entered the zones. The ELN has reportedly proposed an alternative formula involving a series of zones throughout the country connected by “corridors” to allow mobility.

With its demands, is the Colombian government simply seeking to safeguard against guerrilla cease-fire violations? Or has it confused “cease of hostilities and political negotiations” with “surrender and discussion of demobilization terms”?

What the ELN says:

At the table, the ELN has clearly stated that it will not demobilize, disarm, or gather in a zone, in response to the government’s demands…

The ELN is willing to sign – in order to support an atmosphere of peace – a cease-fire and cessation of hostilities with verification, for a fixed period, on an experimental and bilateral basis. But at the same time it demands that the government similarly make contributions to generate an atmosphere of peace with real measures against displacement, measures that neutralize the persecution of political opponents and social leaders, measures that bring relief against the problem of forced disappearances – the last count registers 30,000 disappeared Colombians – and measures against mass arrests.

What the government says:

(The text below comes from El Tiempo’s explanation, published today, of the government position. The High Commissioner for Peace website also includes a very interesting draft of the framework accord for a cease-fire and launch of negotiations [PDF]. The draft indicates language proposed by the ELN and accepted by the government, and vice versa.)

The government is not yielding in its demand that the only way to guarantee a verified cease-fire is to identify ELN forces and concentrate them in a special zone. In addition, according to Restrepo, the ELN refuses to include its urban structures in the cessation of hostilities.

The ELN’s public statements make no mention of a desire to see separate treatment for urban militias.

Here are excerpts from a memorandum sent today by Luis Eduardo Celis, a trusted analyst from Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, the Bogotá think-tank headed by León Valencia. Continue reading »

Jul 24
Sen. Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez at her swearing-in
Sen. Gutiérrez being sworn in on Friday. (From El Tiempo)

In Colombia’s Congress, the presidency of the Senate is a one-year position, beginning and ending with each legislative session. The latest session began last Friday, July 20, and the Colombian Senate’s new president is Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, from Cundinamarca, the department which surrounds Bogotá.

Sen. Gutiérrez is a member of the “Radical Change” party, which is part of the coalition – adding up to about 70 percent of Colombia’s Congress – which supports President Álvaro Uribe. The head of “Radical Change” is Germán Vargas Lleras, a right-of-center politician who occasionally shows disagreement with President Uribe.

For her part, Sen. Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez showed on Friday that she is not about to follow the Uribe line completely. President Uribe’s speech at the new Congress’s inauguration took a very hard line on prisoner-exchange talks with the FARC and declared that “Colombia has put paramilitarism behind it.”

Sen. Gutiérrez clearly does not agree. Her speech at the inauguration of the new Congress showed some real independence on the subject of negotiations with the paramilitaries, the ELN and the FARC. It is important that a prominent political establishment figure sent this message at this time.

Here is a translated excerpt.

Reconciliation will only be feasible if the justice system can manage to channel the government’s will, and the paramilitaries’ supposed motivation for entering into a peace process. This will cannot be an excuse to launder money, to legalize fortunes, to avoid being extradited, or to keep holding political power – whether through the power of bullets or, as today, through money. That is why it is up to the justice system, through confessions that reflect the reality of the facts, as hard as those may be. To reveal in the victims’ presence, and to their satisfaction, the true facts about what happened, one after another.

Economic reparations to the victims cannot be done with petty cash, or through the supposed surrender of broken, prehistoric aircraft. It must be done with the true amount of their fortunes. If not, these monies will end up like blank checks, translated into bought votes cast in contaminated ballots, and history will turn 360 degrees, repeating itself.

Reconciliation in processes like South Africa and Rwanda was achieved to the extent that atrocities were recounted in their totality, in all their detail. In many cases, pretentious excuses – like that of a sudden onset of Alzheimer’s [the excuse that elderly paramilitary leader Ramón Isaza used in his May confession] – were censured. Those who used them could not enjoy the benefits of these peace processes, and today are serving long and deserved sentences.

It is worrying that in two years only sixty of the nearly 2,800 people covered by the “Justice and Peace” law have been heard. At this rate how long will it take to hear all of them? If it continues like this, there will be nobody left to give reparations, or to make peace.

On the other side, it is encouraging that the ELN’s discourse contemplates tangible acts of peace. The recognition of a will to arrive at an accord, with an agenda that includes a cease-fire and cease of hostilities, as well as the proposal to return kidnap victims, is a significant step. The Congress of the Republic must take up and support the path cleared by the government and the ELN, through a proactive accompaniment like that which this insurgent group officially requested of us yesterday, for the building of a national agenda.

A contrary case, a discouraging one, is that of the FARC’s position. With the killing of the Valle del Cauca state legislators, this group has once again demonstrated its mute intransigence and its deaf [lack of] compassion. There is nothing; in 42 years of armed struggle they will be able to yield nothing to history’s conciliatory judgment, because after all these years there has only been blood, forced displacements, kidnappings, massacres, environmental destruction, narcotrafficking and ideological incoherence. The only thing on which they have been able to make the country agree is that we disagree with their methods.

However, the government cannot – not in the slightest bit – emulate the FARC’s conduct, not even in one of its aspects: its intransigence. Doing so will cause the government to remain – as it has been so far in the hearts of the victims’ families, in the international community that does not know the country’s reality, and in some sectors of opinion – a co-participant in the responsibility for every one of the FARC’s murdered victims. Of course this is an unfair accusation, since it is not the government that is kidnapping and killing.

The value, the motivation and the reflexive argumentation in President Álvaro Uribe’s determination is understandable, as is the justified fear that if a zone is demilitarized and the guerrillas give up some of their hostages, new ones will be recycled in and we could be facing the same perpetual problem. However, we must find a solution that avoids the kidnapping of more people and that achieves the liberation of those who are currently victims of this scourge. Perhaps the second, which is more immediate, we can achieve, if the President returns to the proposal of the friendly countries [the Group of Friends, Spain, France, and Switzerland, who have developed a proposed plan for hostage negotiations] – a proposal he himself supported in December 2005, to define an encounter zone with no armed presence, with international observers to guarantee compliance.

May 24

León Valencia is a former member of the ELN guerrilla group’s Central Command. After demobilizing in 1994 along with 730 other ELN members, Valencia has been one of Colombia’s most prominent analysts of the conflict and peace efforts. He heads a non-governmental organization called the New Rainbow Corporation, whose investigations of politicians’ ties to paramilitary groups get partial credit for the emergence of the “para-politics” scandal.

I cornered León yesterday at a U.S. Institute of Peace conference on peace initiatives in Colombia. He has been to Havana twice in the past month to accompany the ELN’s peace talks with the Colombian government, including a visit late last week. The message he brings is that a cessation of hostilities is imminent, and that the U.S. government should no longer keep its distance from the process.

(Valencia does not refer here to the ELN’s additional demand, announced late Tuesday, that a cease-fire be contingent on Colombia dropping its free-trade agreement with the United States. If this is a consensus position within the ELN – and that is not clear – it could be an obstacle to short-term progress because Bogotá is unlikely to yield.)

Apr 18

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos yawns during Sen. Gustavo Petro's congressional debate yesterday on paramilitarism in Antioquia.Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos may look bored, but in fact there’s a lot going on right now. I’m in Chicago for a few events and meetings, which are going to keep me from writing much today. But I want to point to three things:

1. Senator Gustavo Petro held his long-awaited congressional debate on paramilitary-government links in Antioquia, a department that Álvaro Uribe represented as a senator from 1986 to 1994, and as governor from 1995 to 1997.

From today’s Washington Post:

Basing his accusations on government documents and depositions by former paramilitary members and military officers, Sen. Gustavo Petro said the militiamen met at Uribe’s Guacharacas farm as well as ranches owned by his brother, Santiago Uribe, and a close associate, Luis Alberto Villegas. “From there, at night, they would go out and kill people,” Petro said, referring to the sprawling ranch owned by Álvaro Uribe.

If you understand Spanish, you can view Petro’s presentation in its entirety on the website of his political party, the Polo Democrático. Here is other coverage:

2. Sen. Patrick Leahy has put a hold on 2006 military aid to Colombia that was “unfrozen” earlier this month, when the State Department certified that the Colombian military’s human-rights record was improving. This $55 million is once again frozen until Sen. Leahy – who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign aid – gets a fuller explanation of how the State Department could possibly see things as improving right now.

3. The Colombian government and ELN negotiators finally sat down in Havana and began talks yesterday, five days later than the current round was scheduled to begin. The ELN has offered a partial cease-fire, which the government is unlikely to accept. Talks continue behind closed doors, but pessimism abounds.