Negotiating Peace in Colombia: A Missed Opportunity?

The history of the armed conflict in Colombia is not only a history of war, but also one of missed opportunities for a negotiated solution. The recent cease-fire negotiation with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group is a case in point. Initiated in the summer of 2005, the negotiations have reached a dead-end, and have lost momentum.

March 13, 2008

The history of the armed conflict in Colombia is not only a history of war, but also one of missed opportunities for a negotiated solution. The recent cease-fire negotiation with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group is a case in point. Initiated in the summer of 2005, the negotiations have reached a dead-end, and have lost momentum.

In the latest turn of events, the negotiations faltered amid the participation of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The ELN had hoped his political weight would breathe new life into the talks, and his participation signaled a lifeline for the ELN in the stalled talks. As one Colombian analyst told me recently, “It is as if the Virgin Mary appeared before the ELN.”

But even Chávez’s brief involvement produced few concrete results, as it was cut short by the Colombian government. Mutual distrust between the parties and their intransigence on key issues, such as cease-fire conditions, remain the central stumbling blocks of a lasting peace between the ELN and the Colombian government.

ELN leader Francisco Galán in a 2006 interview. (© 2006 Pauline Bartolone/Human Rights Watch)

The latest talks between the ELN and Bogotá began in late 2005. The government granted ELN leader Francisco Galán house arrest in a Casa de Paz (House of Peace) in the hills surrounding Medellín. Conceived by a group of civil society leaders, the Casa de Paz was envisioned as an unofficial headquarters of the ELN during negotiations with the government. A key role of the Casa de Paz is to provide a space where civil society organizations can present proposals and ideas for a possible peace process with the ELN. The group has always emphasized the need to involve civil society in any negotiated settlement to the conflict.

After three months of meetings at the Casa de Paz, negotiations with the government officially began in December 2005 in Havana, Cuba. It was the first of eight rounds of talks, which inaugurated the exploratory phase. The talks hit a serious snag in April 2007, when amid mounting tensions, the Colombian government decided to suspend the facilitation provided by diplomatic missions from Spain, Norway and Switzerland. The government felt the ELN was using the foreigners’ involvement to raise their international profile and to delay the pace of the negotiations. Between April and August 2007, no outside facilitators attended the meetings. Nonetheless, the parties were able to make substantial progress and had drafted a framework agreement by June 2007.

The Framework Agreement

The draft of the framework agreement is a comprehensive document. In the agreement, the ELN agreed to suspend all military action, including attacks on civilian populations and infrastructure sabotage. For its part, the government said it would suspend any offensive military actions against the guerrilla group. Moreover, the ELN promised to stop kidnapping, free hostages, and to help the government in landmine deactivation programs. In addition, both parties agreed on the importance of including civil society in a peace process.

Despite the initial optimism produced by the agreement, the talks fell apart a month later. The government demanded that the ELN publicly declare their firm commitment to disarm and to demobilize. Part of the cease-fire, said the government, should involve the creation of designated zones, where ELN fighters would gather so that the government can identify the soldiers and monitor the cease-fire. The ELN responded that ceding to these demands was tantamount to suicide.

The intransigence of both parties on the cease-fire conditions, and their mutual distrust, led to the demise of the talks. It was at this point that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez entered the stage.

Enter: Chávez

Despite the initial impetus Chávez’s role gave to the talks, his invovlement soon became problematic in the eyes of the Colombian government. Until last August, Chávez had publicly maintained a neutral stance in the Colombian conflict, and had never sought a specific role to play. But in a August 31 meeting with Chávez, Colombian president Álvaro Uribe solicited his counterpart’s help in facilitating talks with leftist rebels. Sources close to Uribe claim Chávez had to be convinced to take on this role as a third party.

Chávez proved to be effective: in the first weeks of his efforts, he was able to open direct channels of communication with both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the ELN guerrillas. Top leaders from the two insurgent groups traveled to Caracas. The ELN had confidence that Chávez would listen to their demands and they trusted his ability to facilitate an adequately fair cease-fire agreement.

Antonio García, of the ELN's high command, joined the group in 1975 at age 19.

In highlighting the importance of the moment, the commandant of the ELN, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (alias Gabino), left the security of the Central Command headquarters in the Colombian mountains for Caracas. The ELN’s second-in-command, hard-liner Antonio García, accompanied Gabino in the ELN delegation that met with Chávez in Caracas on November 15. But Uribe was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the Chávez’s handling of the negotiations. A week later, Uribe abruptly broke-off the mediation after the Venezuelan president violated protocol by directly calling the Colombian military command.

Chávez responded indignantly calling his counterpart a “liar” and a “coward.” Uribe replied that Colombia “needs mediators that are against terrorism, and not those that legitimize terrorism.” Relations between the two countries have plummeted to an unprecedented low in a worrisome downward spiral, and have now reached a breaking point after Colombia conducted an assassination mission against a FARC leader in Ecuadorian territory, where the country’s president Rafael Correa is a close ally of Chávez.

At the beginning of this year, Chávez invited president Uribe and foreign governments to grant the ELN and the FARC “belligerent status,” which would grant them political status as insurgent groups and drop them from international lists of “terrorist organizations.” Venezuela’s congressed, made up mostly of Chávez supporters, followed the suggestion and granted political status to both rebel groups. Other governments from Latin America, North America, and Europe balked at the proposal.

Last December, the government sent to the Central Command a new proposal to resume talks, but to date has not received a reply. The present crisis represents a peak in tensions that have long simmered between the parties since the resumption of negotiations last summer.

Is There Still a Process with the ELN?

Although the talks have not been officially called off, the peace process with the ELN is moribund. The negotiating table is still open, but the seats around it are empty. In a statement released at the end of last year, the ELN affirmed the process had reached a “dead end” and that peace “made no progress this year.”

ELN logo: "Not one step back, liberation or death."

The complicated obstacles confronting the process are many. First off, the participation of Chávez in the process is now seen as non-negotiable by the ELN, and this has weakened the relevance of Uribe’s negotiators in the eyes of the armed group. The ELN seems to think it can leverage Chávez and other forms of international pressure in its favor to exact more favorable concessions from the Colombian government. If the talks continue to drag on, the position of hard-liners within the ELN will continue to radicalize, and their claims for “war as necessity” will begin to resonate among more moderate factions. Another issue complicating the talks is a pending U.S. extradition request of three ELN members for the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen. The rebel group will also have to address accusations that certain ELN fronts are becoming increasingly involved in the drug trade.

Unfortunately, the lack of a credible and strong third party that could help reach compromises on these issues means that the chances of a return by the parties to the negotiating table is ever more remote. This is compounded by a general frustration among Colombians—as well as sectors of the government and the ELN—who no longer believe that a genuine agreement between the parties can be reached. Completely disregarding its scrappy 44-year history, others make the erroneous suggestion that talks should be shoved aside because the ELN can be defeated militarily.

One of the more fundamental obstacles in the negotiations involves the opposing and polarized perspectives that the Colombian government and the ELN have of the actual negotiation and its objectives. For the Uribe administration, the talks are merely a tool for a forced resolution to the conflict. On the other hand, for the ELN the peace talks are part and parcel of their strategy to advance the structural transformation of Colombia. Indeed, for the insurgents the peace process is the vehicle for generating consensus on the transformation of society: not only between the ELN and the government, but also within the totality of Colombian society.

For now, these opposing visions of peace seem irreconcilable.

Aldo Civico, director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, recently traveled to Colombia to assess the ELN negotiations. He has been involved in facilitation efforts between the guerrillas and the government.

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