Santos: ELN Peace Talks Conundrum

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 03.04.12A few days before President Santos was re-elected, he promised the Colombian people peace talks with the ELN. But as guest writer Richard McColl explains, some things are easier said than done


In my mind’s eye, there’s an image of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in the Palacio de Nariño, scrambling behind the scenes to make good on his promise to begin a durable round of peace dialogues with the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). This is his own personal version of a peace-making balancing act.

As talks between his negotiating team and members of the FARC in Havana continue, attacks against infrastructure are seemingly on the rise, and soldiers are slaughtered in brazen ambushes. This signals the coordination of guerrilla activities with the demobilized AUC paramilitaries – now known as the Bacrim – a coordination that has always been suspected, but is now confirmed (if the government’s narrative is to be believed).

“For there to be success, the government will need to be flexible, tolerant and treat the ELN as equal to the FARC.”

So, after having shifted the country’s voting patterns in June’s presidential elections to his favour by declaring the onset of exploratory talks with the ELN to a hopeful and conflict-weary Colombian public, where do we stand with reference to said dialogues with alias Gabino’s men?

There is of course a mire of conundrums that surround any approach of the ELN at this present time, while talks continue with the FARC. Personally, I think that the government is obsessed with the idea that if one series of dialogues fails, so does the other, and this may indeed be holding up any possible announcement.

But the crude reality is that both sets of talks need to be concurrent. The government must agree on an agenda and framework which are both satisfying to the ELN and do not put in jeopardy the talks with the FARC. It’s a negotiation that requires solutions and mutual and equal benefits, despite the fact that, if led by their emotions, the Colombian public doesn’t want to grant any such rights to members of a guerrilla group.

Just as former president Ernesto Samper was accumulating air miles in July on regional trips to secure his nomination as the Secretary General of UNASUR, there was a credible rumour that he might actually be ironing out some of the small print regarding the viability of Ecuador acting as the host country for talks with the ELN. While there may still remain some possibility of bringing this to reality, nothing has been confirmed. In the meantime, this period of delay is neither in the long-term interest of President Santos’ government nor that of the ELN guerrillas, if they are indeed committed to peace.

President Santos’ policy of opening up Colombia to international mining firms has rescued the ELN from becoming a militant wing dependent on the FARC.

With the recent publication of the existing agreements in the dialogues between the FARC and the government, this gesture of transparency would suggest that negotiations with the ELN may be forthcoming. If the government were to postpone talks with the ELN until a deal is reached with the FARC, we would see the problems that arise with sequential talks. Parallel talks themselves present all sorts of dilemmas, in particular regarding the issue of taking place in two separate countries (Cuba and Ecuador/Brazil) and the disconnect that this would create.

Personally though, I believe that the prospect of sequential talks would engender more profound headaches for the Colombian state, not least with the issue of territories controlled by one or both groups, and the difficulties of then implementing any sort of effective ceasefire. We would also witness an increase in the rank and file of the ELN, their numbers becoming swollen with FARC rebels unwilling or unable to demobilize.

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During his re-election campaign, President Santos announced preliminary peace talks with ELN.

For there to be success, the government will need to be flexible, tolerant and treat the ELN as equal to the FARC. Even if people argue that the ELN does not merit as much attention, time and effort, remember that this rebel group is presently enjoying a financial bonanza from the income garnered through the extortion of mining enterprises, both illegal and multinational. President Santos’ policy of opening up Colombia to international mining firms has rescued the ELN from becoming a militant wing dependent on the FARC. They may be smaller in number and reach, but the ELN is strategically positioned in some of the most desirable and lucrative sections of the country. ‘El Gabino’ (the head of the ELN) and company will not be willing to cede this lightly, but surely they are aware that after unsuccessful negotiations with the governments of presidents Belisario Betancur, Cesar Gaviria, Ernesto Samper, Andres Pastrana and Alvaro Uribe, their best opportunity to exit the conflict is with President Santos?

Personally, I think that the government is obsessed with the idea that if one series of dialogues fails, so does the other, and this may indeed be holding up any possible announcement.

In order to open an effective dialogue there needs to be a measure of learning and reflection, and the participants must be willing to address the root causes of the conflict, not just the surface symptoms. Overall, the key challenge is to ensure that any peace agreement actively recognizes thorny areas such as power-sharing arrangements, composition of the army and transitional justice.

The signing of a peace agreement is often considered, erroneously, to signal the end of the conflict. With the ELN strength of 48 fronts in 22 departments, a peace agreement would only be the beginning of the long process of a post-conflict agenda. If the ELN is indeed committed to peace, their spokesmen will be negotiating hard behind the scenes right now to ensure that they enter dialogues as equals, emphasizing the importance and the necessity of fundamental social change and transformation in Colombia. If this is not brought about, we’ll be faced with a situation that conflict scholars and practitioners such as Burton, Galtung, Lederach and Mitchell have called “fragile peace.”

Let’s hope that the delay in talks has been provoked by nothing more than a complex academic discussion on how best to proceed.


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Richard McColl is a long time journalist who can be found at his desk in Bogota or running his guest house, La Casa Amarilla, in Mompos. His weekly radio show ‘Colombia Calling’ can be downloaded from iTunes.

 


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