Colombian delegation: More progress with ELN in 2 days than in 4 years prior
By Irene Escudero
Bogota, Aug 18 (EFE).- The new Colombian government has made it a priority to achieve a peace deal with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and the efforts made thus far are already bearing fruit, one of the current administration’s delegates to the talks said in an interview with Efe.
According to Sen. Ivan Cepeda, who traveled to Cuba on Aug. 10, just three days after leftist President Gustavo Petro’s inauguration, more was achieved in two days of discussions with the ELN than in the entire four-year term of his predecessor, conservative Ivan Duque.
Duque’s administration torpedoed the negotiations with demands, Cepeda said, adding that the only pre-condition Petro’s team will impose is that “peace be secured.”
QUESTION: How was that first new official contact with the ELN in Havana.
ANSWER: Well, I’ve said that President Petro’s administration did in 48 hours what ex-President Ivan Duque’s administration didn’t do in four years. What it did in those years was impose one condition after another on the ELN, and that made it impossible to re-initiate dialogue. Likewise, it launched a campaign against the host country, the Republic of Cuba, and the result of that campaign was that Cuba was included on the list of so-called countries that sponsor terrorism, when in reality it has been involved for 40 years in all the peace processes conducted to improve the situation in Colombia.
So, first of all, amends were made to the Republic of Cuba via a statement by our foreign minister, (Alvaro) Leyva, and secondly, a (declaration) recognizing the legitimacy of the ELN delegation. And so there was a green light to re-initiate the dialogue process.
Q: Did you see a willingness on the part of that ELN delegation to return to the negotiating table?
A: Petro tasked us with verifying whether the ELN delegation has the willingness to achieve peace, and what we were able to verify is that effectively it does. The ELN very clearly affirmed that it’s willing to start, or rather resume, the dialogue that, as is well known, was abruptly suspended in 2018 and had remained severed until last Friday, when President Petro’s administration officially announced it would resume that dialogue.
Q: You said the previous administration imposed a lot of pre-conditions on the ELN. This administration isn’t going to impose any?
A: The only pre-condition is that peace be secured. In Colombia, we’ve spent 60 years talking about pre-conditions, about requirements that must be fulfilled prior to dialogue, and the result of that can be measured in the lives that have been lost. We spent four years discussing whether the ELN should hand over kidnap victims or not, and when it was announced Friday that the dialogue would be restarted the ELN released nine citizens they were holding without any demand on the part of Petro’s administration. That means if there’s progress in the dialogue we’re going to achieve the objective, which is to save lives and achieve peace.
Q: But can’t that be seen as giving carte blanche to the ELN?
A: Well, that’s obviously a possibility, but what reality has shown – and I’m referring only to the last four years – is that stance led to the ELN becoming stronger today, having a presence in more territories, and the armed conflict intensifying in many regions of the country, the reappearance of crimes that had been eradicated after 2016. So that policy of arrogance and stubbornness has led to a reality that’s worse every time.
Q: The top leader of the ELN, Eliecer Herlinto Chamorro, alias “Antonio Garcia,” has been in Cuba for many years without being able to leave. Do you think he continues to have real power over the rank-and-file and the different fronts that operate in Colombia?
A: One argument that’s also been used to undermine or stymie the possibility of dialogue is that the ELN is not a unified guerrilla group, but rather a federation of groups. And we have no real evidence that this latter affirmation is true. The ELN is a guerrilla group that has a 60-year history in Colombia in which it’s shown itself to have a centralized leadership. If that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t have survived these six decades of armed conflict.
Q: The ELN has become a cross-border, bi-national guerrilla group. Will Venezuela have any type of role in these negotiations?
A: Venezuela has been a guarantor country since the start of this process, and there’s a clear request for all the countries – not only Venezuela, but also Cuba, Norway and others – to remain in that role. EFE