Peace talks in Colombia: radio silence after almost four years

New peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN have started. Colombia has had its first left-wing president since August.

Pablo Beltrán and Danilo Rueda shake hands

“Pablo Beltrán”, representative of the ELN, welcomes Ivan Danilo Rueda, Colombia’s peace envoy, in Venezuela on Monday Photo: Ariana Cubillos/dpa

BOGOTA taz | People at a horseshoe-shaped table in front of a glass facade, flags from Venezuela and Colombia, sunflowers in front of them – and in the right corner, a gigantic Christmas tree decorated in gold and silver. This picture from the hotel in Caracas could go down in history. After almost four years, new peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN (“National Liberation Army”) guerrillas began.

It is a historic moment for Colombia, said government peace officer Danilo Rueda. “We are honoring the lives of so many people here today who are not here because violence snatched them from us.” He promised that all victims’ rights would be respected and the mechanisms for participation would be “completely new”. The government delegation later said that the atmosphere was constructive and enthusiastic. They want to resume dialogue “with full political and ethical will”, “as the people in rural and urban areas and other parts of society who suffer from violence and exclusion demand from us,” emphasized both delegations in one joint statement.

The last meeting between the guerrilla leadership and the government took place under the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, who signed the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas in Cuba. His successor Iván Duque was a critic of the agreement – and not a friend of the talks that had started with the ELN. When more than 20 cadets died in a bomb attack on the police academy in Bogotá in 2019, Duque officially broke off the talks. The ELN had claimed responsibility for the attack.

The negotiations with the largest guerrilla in the country are an important step towards the “total peace”, the main goal of the Government of the new President Gustavo Petro. Their social reforms can hardly be implemented as long as the armed conflict continues in large parts of the country. Colombia is experiencing a moment of change that was expressed at the polls, said alias Pablo Beltrán, leader of the ELN delegation. “This table must be an instrument of change, we hope that we will not disappoint this expectation.”

First peace talks with a left-wing president

It is the sixth attempt for talks – but for the first time with a left-wing government, which is supported by the social movements. This argument, which is often used, is now no longer used by the guerrillas. Also, the current delegations can pick up where they left off in Havana, Cuba. Analysts agree, however, that negotiations will be more difficult than with the FARC guerrillas. Because the “National Liberation Army” is not organized as hierarchically as the FARC. Political seizure of power is not their aim – you cannot entice them with seats in parliament.

The ELN is said to have over 2,500 fighters. Together with other groups, it has exploited the power vacuum left by the FARC guerrillas. The guerrillas are notorious for kidnappings and attacks on oil pipelines, but also for drug trafficking. The people on the Pacific coast and in the border region with Venezuela are particularly hard hit by their fighting with other armed groups. They have high hopes for the talks.

That they started in Venezuela is important – and only possible because the new Colombian government has resumed diplomatic relations. The ELN is active in both countries. A recent United Nations report speaks of links between the guerrillas and Nicolas’ Maduro’s government. She denies this. Other guarantee countries are Cuba and Norway; the Catholic Church and the United Nations are accompanying the talks as observers.

The government delegation is headed by Otto Patiño, co-founder of the now-defunct M-19 guerrilla group, to which current President Petro belonged when he was young. Patiño has already taken part in his own guerrillas’ peace talks. The big surprise in the otherwise progressive delegation is José Félix Lafaurie. A few days earlier, President Petro had asked the far-right head of the cattle breeders’ association Fedegan – one of his most bitter opponents in the election campaign and the peace agreement with FARC – to take part. So the clientele of the large landowners is on board.

Unequal land distribution is considered the main cause of the armed conflict in Colombia. The first round of talks is scheduled to end in mid-December.

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