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 Ãlvaro Uribe “fired” Hugo ChÃ¡vez 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 CorporaciÃ³n 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 MÃ©ndez, advisor, CorporaciÃ³n Nuevo Arco Iris
Actualidad Colombiana 468 (March 19-April 2, 2008)
Last January 11, President ChÃ¡vez proposed before Venezuela’s National Assembly the granting of political status and recognition of belligerency to the FARC and the ELN. Through a public communiquÃ©, 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 NicolÃ¡s RodrÃguez Bautista, this organization’s maximum commander, reads the communiquÃ©.
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 communiquÃ© 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 ChÃ¡vez’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 ChÃ¡vez’s mediating role, the ELN has not had any contact with the government. Now, with this January 20 communiquÃ©, the question that remains is whether the ELN has made a decision not to return to the table unless President ChÃ¡vez’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 ChÃ¡vez and, in an informal way, to the FARC’s strategy of staying totally distant from overall negotiation processes with the government of President Ãlvaro Uribe VÃ©lez. 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.Â 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 ChÃ¡vez’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.