Greetings from Medellín, where I’m in the midst of a few days of research, running from interview to interview. The trip is going well so far.
On Monday evening I had an opportunity to visit the "Casa de Paz," a large old house on Medellín’s northern outskirts, set way back from the highway. At the gates, a smiling policeman tried a few English words with me as he took down my information in a notebook.
Police are all around the perimeter of the estate, partly to provide security and partly to keep its occupant from escaping.
The sole resident of the Casa de Paz is Francisco Galán, an ELN guerrilla leader whom the government captured in the mid-1990s. Galán is very unlikely to attempt an escape: from his previous jail cell in Itagüí, south of Medellín, and elsewhere, he has long served as the main conduit between the ELN and the outside world – including the Colombian government.
Galán has played a very central role as the Uribe government and the ELN have slowly moved closer to dialogue. His position is a difficult one. On one side, he must deal with a government that would like to conclude a peace agreement as soon as possible. On the other side is the rest of the ELN, "in the mountains," whose members not only lack a detailed agenda for talks, but have achieved only the most minimal consensus about whether the talks are indeed desirable.
The ELN, much more than the FARC, has sought contact with, and even participation of, Colombia’s "civil society" in the elaboration of an agenda. A group of five (now seven) social movement leaders has tried to help them do that by serving as the "guarantors" of the house where Galán is today.
Since last September, the "Casa" has served as a space for Galán to receive outside visitors, and thus to help the ELN develop proposals for future peace talks. It has ample meeting spaces, well-tended gardens and a panoramic view of Medellín. Its upkeep is funded by the Colombian government and by the three international "friends" of the ELN process, Spain, Norway and Switzerland. 2,000 visitors and 10 international delegations have passed through.
The paramilitaries, who have already "demobilized," have now started their own "Casa de Paz." In mid-July they opened "Villa Esperanza" on land they bought elsewhere north of Medellín, with its own set of outside guarantors. There, the groups’ leaders also expect to receive visits from civil society – though in this case the purpose seems to be more to establish contacts, since there is no need to develop a negotiation agenda.
While the paramilitaries’ "Casa" has been widely viewed as a cynical move, it too is worth support. Contact between armed groups and the rest of Colombian (and international) society should be fostered (though regulated of course) – not banned. To keep groups hermetically sealed, isolated in the jungle, is to make them more out of touch with contemporary realities, more paranoid, more extremist. There should be a space where their members have to answer to critics, consider other viewpoints, listen to their past victims, and learn about their country’s current political reality.
This is a very de-radicalizing experience. In my view, even in the absence of peace talks, the FARC should also be given the opportunity to have a "Casa." It can only be positive if someone like Rodrigo Granda or Simón Trinidad finds himself spending his days talking to a broad spectrum of public opinion, and communicating what he learns with the rest of his group’s isolated, ideologically hidebound leadership.
The FARC are no doubt observing the ELN’s process closely. This process, said Galán, is presently "on standby" – not an acrimonious impasse or freeze, but a slowdown of the dialogues’ pace. Talks occurred in Cuba late last year and early this year, though these served mainly as an exchange of views and a means to get acquainted. Colombia’s election campaign then slowed things down, as has the ELN’s decision-making model which, unlike the FARC’s very hierarchical structure, seeks the maximum possible consensus among fighters and commanders of all ranks.
The government, of course, wants a cease-fire – including a halt to kidnappings and a release of those whom the ELN is cruelly holding for ransom – as a pre-condition for substantive dialogues. Galán said that the ELN would first prefer to have more agreement on the talks’ agenda, and a "humanitarian accord" guaranteeing more support to the conflict’s victims, especially displaced people.
For now, though – and probably for some time to come – the talks are in a trust-building phase, as both sides develop relationships and measure each other’s will and ability to deliver on promises and commitments. This is one of the most difficult and delicate phases, in which progress is hard to measure and patience is badly needed as both sides test each other and try to convince their constituencies that the process is worth pursuing.
It is a phase in which irrational or disrespectful behavior – a perception that one is "playing games" – can do a lot of damage, even if the offense appears on the surface to be small. Unfortunately, some of that is going on right now.
In a bizarre bit of government behavior, Colombia’s Interior Ministry is seeking to evict Galán from the Casa de Paz by the end of August so that it can begin construction of a prison on the property. This was what the ministry planned to do with the house and grounds before last year’s agreement establishing the "Casa," and it is determined to go ahead with the plan to raze the house and start construction.
This would seem to be an easily resolvable issue, but it has become an unhelpful test of wills as both sides play "hardball." The ministry refuses to find another site for the jail, while Galán refuses to move to another Casa de Paz. He told Colombia’s press, "They’re not going to just dump us in some other place. It is here or not at all, period," likening the government’s plan to taking away a demilitarized zone in order to build a barracks. (This position has put the guerrilla leader in an odd alliance with nearby landowners, who do not want to be neighbors of a jail, and who want to preserve the nearly 200-year-old house.)
Of course this argument, which is growing ever more bitter, is about much more than the location of the talks. The ELN clearly views the government’s handling of the episode as a measure of its seriousness about the process. Galán, who is trying to convince the ELN’s hard-liners that the process is worthwhile, is going to have a much harder time doing that if the government sends a message that its desire to build a jail on exactly this property is greater than its desire to pursue dialogues.
What is motivating the government to move ahead with the plan? Is it a lack of coordination – or poor relations – between the Interior Ministry and the presidency’s peace office (the High Commissioner for Peace)? It is a deliberate effort from elements in the Uribe government who do not want the talks to prosper? Or is it an indirect attempt to get the ELN to move faster by setting a sort of deadline?
Whatever the reason, it is a mistake. The talks are in a delicate trust-building phase, and the plan to evict Galán to build a jail is poisoning the atmosphere. It brings back bad memories of the Pastrana government’s dialogues with the FARC, which lurched from crisis to crisis while the two sides argued over procedural minutiae; the talks’ substantive agenda never got started, while both sides argued endlessly about the demilitarized zone and other conditions for dialogues. And again, the FARC is watching this process.
At this phase, the Colombian government should be seeking to convince the ELN – especially the group’s hardliners – that politics, not violence, is a viable option. But this should be "politics" in the sense of an exchange of ideas and proposals – not in the sense of backstabbing and petty squabbles. Why do unnecessary damage to this early goal of the process? Just let Galán stay in the house for a while.