Here is a translation (thanks to CIP Intern Mariam Khokhar) of a column published over a week ago in Medellín’s El Colombiano. The author is Moritz Akerman, one of the five "civil society guarantors" of the Casa de Paz, a space on the outskirts of Medellín where an ELN guerrilla representative has been allowed to meet with people to discuss an eventual agenda for negotiations.
The ELN dialogue process has received little attention, which is a good thing. Outside the impatient gaze of the media and the general public, relations are being forged, consensuses are being built, and progress is slowly being made. Akerman’s column provides a useful, concise view of the risks and opportunities the process currently faces.
September 8, 2006
Window of Opportunity for Negotiation
El Colombiano (Medellín, Colombia)
In my last column I emphasized the opportunities and the risks – as seen from "this side" – for the political negotiation of peace with the guerillas. But, just as it takes two to dance, I believe that an analysis should be done of the guerillas’ level of commitment, focusing this analysis for now on the ELN. The methodology of opportunities and risks will again be useful.
Let’s start with the opportunities.
1. The ELN maintains, so far, levels of political ethics that have allowed it a distance or separation from narco-trafficking. [Note: some recent evidence points to greater ELN involvement in the drug trade.] This condition eases favorable communication with society and with the international community, although the ELN continues to gravely harm citizens with kidnappings and landmines. Another aspect of this opportunity is the fact that the ELN, in this recent stage of movement toward dialogue with society and negotiations, seems to have broken with the logic of military strength and force as a means of gaining bargaining power. Its thesis is that the logic of negotiation should coincide with the logic of deepening democracy and preparing society. If this logic develops, consequently, it should lead them toward eliminating all forms of hostilities against citizens.
2. It has a collective decision-making process recognized by its fronts and its fighters. It would seem to have consolidated itself more fully in this stage of communication with society, the government, and the international community. This communication has permitted the ELN to take into account citizens’ aspirations and demands as it decidedly moves toward politics and away from participation in the war. And it will offer political and social accompaniment of its negotiations with the government, which today are demanding new and more meaningful levels and definitions. It would seem that within the ELN, and with this direction in mind, the leadership of Antonio García has been reinforced [García, viewed as one of the ELN's hardest-line members, is playing a leading role in talks with the government]. This leadership is pushing him increasingly toward politics and distancing him from acts of war. Antonio García is a categorical man whom none can accuse of being weak in the negotiations. For this reason he can pull the peace policy forward, along with the rest of the ELN.
3. Recent internal events within the ELN seem to have ratified willingness to continue negotiations, such as launching the "Political Campaign for Peace" as a prologue to the National Convention, and within the country’s political and electoral calendar.
4. The ELN, in its communication with society at the Casa de Paz, has received assurances from business and opinion leaders of their full commitment to see its participation in politics shielded against acts of right-wing terrorism, which in the case of the UP submitted that organization – and that unequaled political opportunity for peace – to an extermination not just of its men, but of the insurgents’ trust in the state and even in democracy. [The UP was a political party begun by the FARC during a 1980s peace process; thousands of its members were systematically assassinated.]
5. While it has not disappeared, paramilitarism has been delegitimized and somewhat disarticulated, and no social sector sees it today as a resource to stop the left’s political influence, or as an anti-subversive instrument. Today, no elite sees the paramilitaries as an instrument to protect itself. If the guerillas make advances in political negotiations, the objective fact – of having silenced and paralyzed thousands of undemocratic gunmen – will become irreversible: all gangs of assassins will be revealed to be nothing but the military shields of narco-trafficking.
Now, let’s look at some risks.
1. In all human processes and more so in a political negotiation, there is always a subjective risk: that leaders will not be capable of perceiving the opportunity and will lack the political skill to take advantage of junctures that may not be repeated. The FARC failed to take advantage of Pastrana’s opportunity and the Caguan. As García Lorca said, "a coin that will not be minted again." A future negotiation with the FARC will never have the level of influence and opportunity that it could have had with Pastrana.
2. The possibility exists that the ELN might prefer to negotiate in a process simultaneous to, or together with, a process with the FARC. The risk would be that they could end up marginalizing themseves while waiting for a stronger negotiating position. On the other hand, the ELN negotiations could be a stimulus for negotiation with FARC, with the ELN serving as a "trailblazer" for the entire insurgency.
3. The risk exists that the FARC might not understand the ELN’s political decision to negotiate. This would translate into major confrontations between these two guerilla groups. It is impossible to eliminate this risk completely. But the government, society, and the international community can minimize it by effectively demonstrating an attitude of high commitment. The security forces must respond with reciprocity to an eventual cease of military actions by the ELN, and the international community and society should be alowed not only to verify it, but to accompany it – politically and financially – so that ELN members can move toward politics while maintaining their zones of influence, the base of their social-political-military structure.
4. If the ELN gets a good start, negotiations with them will become a general test of the entire negotiation process with insurgents. It would be the laboratory for a negotiated political solution of Colombia’s conflict. While this in itself is an opportunity, it is at the same time the biggest of the risks. Some in the ELN and many of the negotiation’s "social companions" could be tempted to assume the childish attitude of "let’s be realists and ask the impossible": instead of becoming a stimulus for an eventual negotiation with the FARC, the ELN process could become an almost insuperable obstacle. The success of negotiations with all insurgents is not measured in unattainable demands, but in the grand prize that society is willing to offer guerillas who initiate and make possible a negotiated solution to the conflict.