Another blow to Colombia’s peace process

The country’s President Juan Manuel Santos has cancelled peace talks with the National Liberation Army over a hostage dispute. Kimberley Brown reports.

Poster for the National Army of Liberation (ELN), National University of Colombia, 7 March 2007. Julián Ortega Martínez under a Creative Commons Licence

The Colombian peace process was dealt another huge blow last week, after the launch of the long anticipated peace talks with the ELN guerrillas was cancelled Thursday. This move left many people feeling even more concerned about the future of the country and its prospects for peace.

Last week, the Colombian government and the second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), were scheduled to begin the long process of peace negotiations in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. But, at the last minute, the launch was canceled by President Juan Manuel Santos over a hostage dispute with the guerrillas.

According to the president, the ELN failed to meet the deadline to release former legislator Odin Sanchez Montes de Oca, who has been held captive since April of this year. The government had given the guerrillas an ultimatum: release Sanchez by Thursday or the talks won’t happen.

The ELN responded by saying ultimatums are a bad way to start the peace talks and will jeopardize the process, but reluctantly agreed. According to the group’s main negotiator, Pablo Beltran, the release process was underway and Sanchez would have been released during the first round of negotiations – what Beltran says was the initial agreement.

RELATED: The November edition of New Internationalist magazine takes an in-depth look at peace in Colombia.

Both the Red Cross, which will facilitate Sanchez’ release, and the government’s lead negotiator, former Minister of Agriculture Juan Camilo Restrepo, have since confirmed that the release process is now underway – but the peace talks still have not been rescheduled.

The launch of these negotiations with the ELN would have been somewhat of a saving grace for Colombia’s peace process, after citizens narrowly voted down the peace deal with the FARC in a national plebiscite earlier this month. Heads are still spinning, while the world wonders how Colombians could have possibly voted 'No' for peace.

But this win can be partially explained by a strong campaign against the peace deal led by former right-wing president Alvaro Uribe. Uribe managed to convince many Colombians that the FARC were getting off too easily and that the left-wing rebels would soon turn the country into the next Venezuela – a socialist country that is currently seeing major economic, social and political instability.

The campaign was mostly based on a series of lies and deliberate misinterpretations of the details within the agreement. As one human rights professor recently told me, if the government demobilizes the guerrillas, 'Who will demobilize Uribe?'

Many analysts have said that the war won’t stop without a similar agreement with the ELN

But the result of the plebiscite have also sparked nation-wide protests by those demanding the peace agreement be accepted. These include mass marches in several major cities, student sit-ins, and the occupation of Bogota’s main square, Plaza Bolivar. The vote has left the nation divided and the country’s future uncertain.

The FARC and the government have since returned to the negotiating table in Havana, Cuba, where they have been undergoing the peace talks for almost the last four years. President Santos announced last week that they expected to reach a re-negotiated deal in a matter a weeks, not months. The FARC has not commented on this new time line, however.

But even if Colombians had voted to accept and implement the peace deal with the FARC, many analysts have said that the war won’t stop without a similar agreement with the ELN. The talks scheduled to begin last week would have shown that Colombia is still on the road to peace. But now, this too will have to wait.

Of course, another hindrance to Colombia achieving lasting peace is the continued existence of violent paramilitary gangs, which many believe could grow stronger with no guerrilla groups around to challenge their territorial control. But, this doesn’t seem to be a major concern for the government, many of whom have been accused of having ties with paramilitaries, including Uribe.

According to many analysts, the cancellation of the ELN talks is a major indication of how the negotiations are expected to proceed: prolonged and complicated.

Who are the ELN?

The ELN was founded in 1964, the same year as the FARC. Both guerrilla movements were born out of a response to years of extreme inequality, oppression in the countryside and the monopolization of land ownership, which has its routes in Colonialism.

The two groups share a leftist, Marxist ideology, but they differ in several distinct ways.

For starters, the FARC is predominantly a campesino movement, made up of small farmers fighting for land rights and against the oppression in rural areas.

The ELN, on the other hand, is also fighting against wide spread inequality in the country, but was founded by students, intellectuals and other activists in the cities. The movement was highly influenced by the Cuban guerrilla movement and the 1959 revolution. Many of the initial founders of the group were actually trained by revolutionaries in Cuba.

In its early years, the ELN also had religious roots inspired by Liberation Theology – a branch of Christianity mainly concerned with liberating the oppressed. Liberation Theology has been strongest in Latin America over the years, particularly in the 1950's and 1960's, since the continent has strong Catholic roots (since the Spaniards arrived) and has an overwhelming amount of social inequality.

A report by BBC World earlier this year described the ELN as a mix of 'Jesus, Marx and Che Guevara.' The FARC, in contrast, remained strictly a Marxist-Leninist group, without religious influence.

One of the main figureheads behind combining Liberation Theology with the ELN’s Marxist beliefs was Priest Camilo Torres Restrepo. Restrepo was also a university professor, and an outspoken critic of the government and the mass inequality in the country. He was killed in 1966, in his first combat as a guerrilla but he left behind a legacy of what the 'model guerrilla' should be, while other priests and clergy members followed his example.

Over the years, the FARC has grown much faster than the ELN and has always been a larger movement in terms of numbers. It now has anywhere from 8,000-14,000 members, depending on the source.

The ELN only has an estimated 3,000 members, but still has a strong presence in the country. Their main areas of operation are in the departments of Arauca, Norte de Santander, Santander, Cesar, Bolivar, Antioquia, Boyaca, Casanare, Cauca y Nariño.

The structure of the ELN also differs from the FARC, which is one reason why the peace talks are expected to be long and complicated. The ELN leadership is much more horizontal than the FARC’s, who has a clearer hierarchy. This means that decisions within the ELN are made by consensus between all members of the Central Command (COCE). According to reports by Colombia’s El Espectador, this need for consensus could drastically prolong the peace negotiations.

Professor Javier Fayad at the Universidad del Valle en Cali recently told me that because the ELN has fewer members and is spread out within a large territory, they are also not as tightly controlled as the FARC. This could also prolong the organization and decision making process.

Structure of the talks

Like the FARC, peace talks with the ELN have been attempted in the past, but have all been cut short.

The decision to begin negotiations again came after two years of preliminary discussions between the ELN and the government, which started in January of 2014.

If and when the talks finally do begin, the structure will follow a six point agenda, similar to the model laid out by the FARC negotiations.

Cancellation of the ELN talks is a major indication of how the negotiations are expected to proceed: prolonged and complicated

However, the points of the agenda are different. For the ELN, these include: the participation of civil society in the peace-building process, democracy for peace, transformation for peace, victims’ rights, ending the conflict, and finally the implementation of the agreements.

For the FARC, the points agreed upon in Havana are: agricultural development policy, political participation, the end of the conflict, solution to the problem of illicit drugs, victims’ rights, and implementation of the agreements.

President Santos also stressed that the two guerrilla groups are different, and therefor negotiations with the ELN will be distinct from those with the FARC.

Like the negotiations with the FARC, which were held in Cuba, the talks with the ELN will also be held on neutral, foreign territory with international observers. Cuba, Norway, Venezuela, Chile and Brazil will all send observers to the negotiations held in Quito.

The cancellation of the talks last week were a set back in the peace process and highlighted the major tensions that still exist in the country. But the way Colombians have been mobilizing the past few weeks have made it obvious that citizens want peace, they have long been striving for it, and will continue to work for it.

But for the peace process to be successful, leaders behind the negotiations must be willing to do the same.