Challenges of the peace process between the Colombian government and the ELN

Following the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, a new negotiation process was set up in Quito between the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación National – ELN) and the government. In February 2017, the first ceasefire took place in good faith but only a few months later, clashes between the two parties started again, leading to the suspension of the negotiation process for two months. Nevertheless, on March 12 2018, both parties announced the re-establishment of the negotiation process.

Meanwhile, reactionary and paramilitary violence continues to claim victims in the country, mostly among popular sectors, and the government seems reticent to fully implement the peace agreement with the FARC. In such an environment, what is the future of the new negotiation process? What are the main challenges for Colombia to move towards a true and lasting peace? It is in order to address these issues – keeping in mind that in any negotiation, the protagonists are always the negotiators – that we spoke with one of the key people on the negotiating team of the ELN, Aureliano Carbonell. A sociologist by training, he is considered one of the most influential intellectuals of the movement.


Raffaele Morgantini: The peace process between the Colombian government and the ELN began more than a year ago. Could you give us an assessment of what has happened since then?


Aureliano Carbonell (ELN delegation for the peace process): First, I would like to salute Investig’Action, information and political analysis website. We are very happy to be able to share our vision of the situation in Colombia with you and are pleased to answer your questions.

The purpose of this process is to build a peace agreement, which would incorporate minimal and basic changes to enable a new scenario for Colombia, with new political, social and economic prospects for the country. The ELN took up arms 53 years ago, but in the current socio-political situation, our goal is to move towards a new situation where “those from below” would not need to take up arms to defend their rights. As part of the deal, “those from above” must demonstrate that they can wield power in another way, creating conditions under which it is possible to engage in unarmed politics. To achieve this, the dominant classes must stop using violence as the centre of their political strategy and as the main means of resolving social conflicts, as well as blocking political actions and prospects of alternative movements, as they have done for decades.

This process for a political solution has a very important component that is not just a dialogue, a discussion or a negotiation, but includes the very active participation of society as a whole. The purpose of the peace agreement is to incorporate the decisions and aspirations of the different social sectors, so that it is a national agreement that enables us to address other socio-political issues.

Regarding the balance sheet, we must realise that this kind of peace agreement is very complex, especially in a country like Colombia where power and violence of the oligarchy have led to years of confrontation. The ruling classes continue to oppose any kind of change. Thy wish for nothing to change, only for guerrilla warfare and insurgency to disappear while everything else remains the same. They want the country to continue to be ruled in the same way. There are even important sectors of this class that radically oppose this dialogue or any type of agreement. These sectors, that already opposed the Havana agreement (with the FARC) and forced the parties to renegotiate several times, are very powerful and influential. The peace agreement with the FARC serves as a clear example that the government and the ruling class have not honoured their words, disrespecting the agreement. The FARC respected the main part of the agreement, that is, handing over the weapons. But their counterpart does not respect the agreement, especially with regards to the central aspects of its implementation.

In the case of the ELN, negotiations have been taking place for a year. The first point on the agenda, the participation of society, is the only one where some progress was made, by developing preparatory hearings that consisted in consulting the different sectors of society, asking how they see their participation, and what mechanisms and instruments they propose to put into practice. In reality, it is a simple introduction to real participation. On the humanitarian components of the agreement, there has not been any major progress. One point that seems central to us is that effective measures be taken regarding a situation that has arisen in recent years – including since the signing of the Havana agreements and the beginning of the Quito negotiations – that is, the assassination of social leaders. In January 2018, 27 leaders were murdered. And it continues…

The bilateral ceasefire agreement that was concluded between October and January is something positive. We are ready to conclude a new ceasefire, but the government’s non-constructive attitude has put it in doubt. After the agreement, the government gave its own interpretation of it, rejecting the evaluation of the generated humanitarian losses, in addition to launching new actions against us.


What is your analysis of the question of paramilitarism? And what is the impact of this phenomenon on the socio-political panorama of Colombia?


Paramilitarism in Colombia is an expression of state terrorism. It is a phenomenon that plays a decisive role in blocking alternatives, crushing social movements and protests. In this sense, it must be analysed as an instrument at the service of the ruling class, to keep them in power and to block proposals for change. It is a weapon of struggle which allows the armed uprising in Colombia to remain valid. In past years, paramilitarism took hold in many areas through the formation of paramilitary armies that generate violence and terror. These groups continue to intimidate the population and control organizations in other parts of the country: Antioquia, Chocó and the Pacific region. They remain strong in the south of the country and act as civilians groups in cities, protected by the army and secret services.

Paramilitarism continues to hinder the organized struggles of alternative and popular sectors. This is why we are thinking about the need for a political solution through a peace agreement. The ruling classes cannot continue to develop this violent strategy to prevent alternatives initiated from sectors struggling for social justice.


The international community has been present in the process through states and other institutions. Can you take stock of the participation of the international community?


The participation of the international community has been very positive for the interest and active engagement in the process. We saw support from guarantor countries, namely Norway, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba and Brazil. An engaged and cooperative support group was also formed by Holland, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Germany. The United Nations is also playing an important role through the Security Council, which has actively engaged in the ceasefire. The Church and the two concerned parties also communicate in another space. At the continental level too, popular sectors have shown an interest in the process: we have received expressions of solidarity from many parts of Latin America.


In the development of the agenda, you have included as a central element the participation of society. How has this progressed? What is your assessment of the preparatory hearings? And how could the proposals materialise?


From our perspective, it is necessary to ensure the participation of the people and society in general to resolve the conflict effectively and sustainably. It is not exclusively a negotiation between the guerrilla and the government, because neither the guerrilla nor the government represent the whole of society. During the process, different social sectors participated, with 194 testimonies that resulted from the organisational processes in the regions. Representatives from Pacific organizations, the South West, the Caribbean, women’s organizations, ethnic groups, peasants, LGBT people, student organizations, unions, migrants and refugees were consulted. What we are looking for is the participation of the Colombian population. Some have been suggested by the ELN and some by the government, through a transparent and inclusive process.

The preparatory hearings have been very positive. In general, all those who participated in these hearings provided basic ideas on how participation could be ensured, but also on methodology, mechanisms, results and many other things. In this sense, the result is encouraging and positive, but so far only the preparatory hearings have been conducted, no further progress has been made on this agenda item. The participation of society has not yet been realized.

In the fifth cycle that we initiated, we planned to elaborate together what the participation of Colombian society would be. First, by bringing together the proposals of the hearings. On our side, we aspire, in addition to this elaboration, to achieve some first steps of what would be the participation in the territories, but also in relation to the social sectors. In a way that we could consider these first steps as experimental and exploratory. Now we will see how we can actually materialise this participation to make it effective and so it contributes to an inclusive peace.


At this moment, the process seems to be stuck. What difficulties are you facing and what are the alternatives proposed by the ELN?


The process is blocked. The government refused to attend the fifth cycle saying that the ceasefire ended on January 9 and that since the cycle was to take place on the same day, it could not be present for logistical reasons. The ELN is ready to consider a new ceasefire to reduce the intensity of the conflict. A new cycle should be set up, during which an initial assessment would be made to try to correct the most problematic issues and to agree on an overall setup of participation. However, this has not been possible so far. We still have differences with the government as to the details of the process. We want a more active participation of different sectors of society to be the interlocutors of both parties and to play an active role. We are open to initiatives aimed at moving towards solutions with the Church, the UN and the guarantor countries.

At present, the participation of representative sectors of workers’ organizations, which want to contribute to the search for possible solutions with both parties, is being developed. So we will work with the different sectors in search of an exit from the stalemate in which we find ourselves right now.


What are the conditions for an effective and integral peace in Colombia?


This whole process of paramilitarism has led to the displacement of 7 million people and the theft of nearly 7 million hectares of land. As a result, paramilitarism – in addition to being a way of exercising power – is transformed into a means of accumulation through violence. In fact, many peasants have had to leave their areas or been forcibly displaced.

In this war, the sectors of the ruling classes, paramilitarism and drug trafficking, worked hand in hand to crush the insurgent forces. We are trying to find other ways, towards a peace agreement that allows us to tackle the struggle in another way. There are important challenges ahead. Take as an example the Havana peace process and its lack of implementation.

At the moment, the possibility to move towards a new social situation, to reach a peace agreement so that social conflicts can be handled in another way, exists. The main responsibility lies within the ruling classes, mainly because they are responsible for the lack of implementation of the agreement. They refuse any change and protect their class privileges, but at the same time they demand that the insurgent forces and the resistance disappear. The attitude of the Colombian ruling class, which refuses to tackle the socio-economic roots of the conflict, is making us lose another historic opportunity. It creates the conditions for violence and armed conflict to continue for decades.

As long as the government shows no political will, as long as we do not reach a new situation, as long as the agreements are not respected, the armed uprising remains valid.


Source: Journal of Our Americas, Investig’Action


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