Morning Star Article: Why has Colombia’s government ended peace talks with Marxist rebels ELN?

eln_-_web13Originally published 11th March 2019, this article is republished from the Morning Star Newspaper – the online Morning Star edition can be found HERE

SINCE 2017, Colombia’s government and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) have been publicly engaged in peace talks to end 54 years of armed conflict.

But following the inauguration of right-wing president Ivan Duque in August 2018, a man who vowed to end peace talks during his presidential campaign, Colombia’s new government has since canceled negotiations and called for the arrest of ELN’s negotiating team.

This reactivation of an Interpol notice ignores security protocols mutually agreed to by the negotiating parties, which promised the safe return of ELN’s political leadership to their units in Colombia in the event of the collapse of peace talks.

This demand also created a diplomatic dilemma for Cuba’s government – the facilitator of Colombia’s peace negotiations – although Cuba has declared that it will abide by the prearranged protocols.

Peace negotiations were canceled after the ELN claimed responsibility for a bombing against the country’s largest training academy used for the National Police, killing 20 police officers and injuring dozens more. While ELN’s negotiating team in Cuba claimed that this attack was coordinated without their knowledge, they admitted that it was organised by a local ELN guerilla front.

The ELN said that after agreeing to a unilateral ceasefire over the Christmas and New Year period, the security forces expanded into rebel-held territories and killed many of its members and supporters – acts of aggression that have not been reported by Colombia’s corporate media.

ELN claims that as the National Police and its training academies are employed for counter-insurgency purposes, the bombing was aimed at a legitimate military target. In a statement released officially, it further declared that it is “very disproportionate that, while the government is attacking us, it then states that we cannot respond [militarily]…”

The offensive has been exploited by Colombia’s right-wing as a pretext to dismantle peace talks. Still, despite his emphasis on a military rather than a negotiated solution to the armed conflict, President Duque has so far failed to gain the political support for waging all-out war indefinitely.

Duque and his party – the Democratic Centre – are an isolated minority in the National Congress and are struggling to unite the dominant classes behind their militaristic agenda, particularly in relation to the exporting sectors.

Many such capitalists and their business associations supported Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement with Farc, Colombia’s other (now demobilised) left-wing revolutionary group. The peace agreement permitted some of these capitalists the ability to access and exploit land and resources previously prohibited to them by leftist insurgents.

As former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced in 2015, “A Colombia in peace will attract more investments that will create more and better jobs.” What is more, cocaine production has skyrocketed since the signing of the peace accord with Farc because the insurgent groups’ demobilisation allowed narco-capitalists to take over territory once governed by leftist rebels.

The return to an openly militarist strategy by the Colombian state may not be necessary, however. Paramilitary forces, sponsored largely by landowners, are continuing to murder trade unionists, social leaders and human rights activists in significant numbers. Since the signing of the peace agreement in 2016 with Farc, at least 85 former Farc insurgents have been murdered.

Likewise, according to the campaign group Justice for Colombia, as of January 17 2019 “163 killings [of trade-unionists, social leaders and human rights activists] have been verified with 454 cases reported in total.” Several more trade-unionists have been killed since and they are being murdered on a regular basis.

Colombia still remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a social activist. This all occurs while US co-operation with Colombia’s government and armed forces grows.

In reality, ELN’s attack in the capital, Bogota, serves to conceal the underlying reasons for Duque’s desire to end peace talks. The ELN, unlike the former Farc, is more federally structured and incorporates social rights groups as well as trade unions into its organisation. The ELN contrasts with many other left-wing insurgent movements in Latin America in that it depends less on military activity and more on community grassroots structures.

For example, ELN has insisted from the outset that civilian entities should be integral to peace negotiations, while holding that the discussions should be conducted publicly. Negotiating with the ELN, as such, entails having to compromise with civil society, not merely a small political elite or a seven-man “secretariat” based in the jungles.

The ELN appears to fear another accord with Colombia’s government whereby the rebels disarm, but state terrorism continues to be employed against the socialist movement. The ELN and its political allies have sought to use the peace negotiations as an opportunity to change the conditions that give rise to civil war, calling the objective “peace with social justice.”

Yet Duque has ruled out socio-economic reforms demanded by Colombia’s social activists and dismisses the ELN as a “terrorist group” – regarding it as nothing more than a “criminal entity.”

Rather than reveal a willingness to compromise politically during the recent talks, Duque made ambitious demands on the ELN. He insisted that before talks can be allowed to progress, the ELN would have to cease its practices of “extortion” – what the organisation calls “revolutionary taxes.”

But if the ELN put into practice this demand, it would cut off its main source of funding. Having to feed thousands of combatants three meals a day, provide clothing and equipment for continuing the armed struggle, alongside having to cater to civilian needs and grievances, is an expensive political project. Subsequently, if the ELN agreed to halt its practices of “extortion”, it would quickly go bankrupt and would not be able to carry on fighting if attacked.

Ultimately, despite Duque’s rejection of negotiations, the ELN still has numerous bargaining chips. Pablo Beltran, one of ELN’s senior political leaders, recently declared that in the event of a possible US invasion from Colombia into Venezuela the ELN would defend Venezuela’s sovereignty and conduct guerilla operations against US troops.

Furthermore, the ELN depends on a reserve force numbering several thousand demobilised combatants – ELN combatants based in the mountains are normally permitted to demobilise as civilian “reservists” after a three-year period. These civilian members and supporters are then liable to be called back up to join the armed units if the conflict intensifies.

Additionally, the ELN has a significant base of support in strategic sectors of Colombia – for example, along the oil-rich border with Venezuela. With no lack of influence or of peasants wanting to join the movement, the ELN can continue to threaten the Colombian state and ruling class infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

President Iván Duque and Colombia’s ELN

Since 2017, Colombia’s government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Marxist revolutionary group, have been engaged in discussions to end 54 years of war. So far, the government has been playing down the strength of the insurgent group while hoping to negotiate its surrender in return for its protection as a legal political entity. On the other hand, the ELN has been demanding that the government implement social reforms as part of its negotiating platform, particularly focused on resolving the conditions that have given rise to the conflict. However, in June, a right-wing candidate won Colombia’s 2018 presidential elections and promises to treat the ELN as mere criminals rather than as a political entity with legitimate grievances and demands. This blog post argues that the new president would do well to change his political posture and recognise ELN’s increasing strength and strong bargaining position to achieve a peace deal.

Colombia’s incoming President, Iván Duque, primarily represents the landowning fraction of capital. He promises to modify the peace deal reached with the FARC in 2016 and offer negotiating conditions so strict to the National Liberation Army (ELN) that the latter will not agree to surrender their weapons. However, like Colombia’s government, the ELN has been preparing for more war, aware of the possibility that a peace agreement may not be reached. For years they have sought to expand on the battlefield so as to ensure a stronger hand at the negotiating table. While Colombia’s military, working with the Venezuelan Armed Forces, has killed several important commanders in ELN’s strongest Domingo Lain Front, this entity has taken strong advantage of the vacuum left by the FARC-EP and significantly expanded its operations and influence. Similarly, powerful ELN Fronts in both Nariño and Chocó have also developed their operations. In other words, Duque wants to force surrender to a political-military organisation that is gaining strength.

The tactic of using overwhelming militarily superiority effectively against ELN has also largely depended on the expectation that FARC dissidents will not be able to unite around a single banner. Now that FARC dissidents are working collectively, and have grown rapidly, numbering around 4000 combatants – only an estimated 3500-4000 less than FARC-EP at the inception of negotiations in 2013 – Colombia’s military can no longer expect to dominate the ELN militarily. They must focus on at least two highly organised political-military groups that are gaining momentum. Moreover, after many years of relative inactivity, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) is currently experiencing a resurgence in the East. Hence, unless Colombia’s government is willing to compromise politically and implement structural reforms to its neoliberal model, as is demanded by the ELN as part of negotiations, it looks likely that a peace accord will be off the cards for the next decade or so.

The ELN has been underestimated and misjudged by a large majority of ‘experts’. Too often they have been compared to FARC-EP or seen as a traditional insurgent organisation that is attempting to overthrow the Colombian state militarily. This is not the case. They have a unique political strategy. With new combatants generally committing around three years as a guerrilla combatant (rather than a lifetime) before they leave to work for social justice causes legally, ELN relies on a large reserve force that organises within moderate political movements and throughout communities. Indeed, unlike traditional insurgent groups, the ELN does not view itself as the so-called ‘vanguard of the revolutionary struggle’, but rather as one of many anti-capitalist movements and networks pressuring the state to change from its neoliberal political course. Put differently, the ELN does not worship the rifle. Thus, the group should not be evaluated simply on the basis of its military strength – which has grown since negotiations began. The government’s bargaining team ought to take this difference in strategy into account when negotiating with the group.

The international situation likewise is not favourable to the incoming Colombian President. The United States does not want to continue financing Colombia’s expensive military struggle against the rebels when it needs to be focused on more pressing matters relating to conflict around the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa. Importantly, military success against the rebels from 2002 to the Present has been overwhelmingly dependent on Plan Colombia, an international initiative sponsored predominantly by the United States to stop Colombia ‘going communist’ and to make the country receptive to international business. In fact, the United States exploited Colombia’s desperate situation with the rebels during the 1990s to open Colombia’s economy up and provoke its government to embrace economic policies favourable to U.S-based corporations, a fact that has tended to negatively affect Colombia’s local and landowning bourgeoisie. This means President Duque cannot afford to simply ignore the expectations of its hegemonic northern ‘partner’.

Duque’s negotiating position is made worse by Colombia’s slowing economy, the fact that European Union countries support compromise in peace negotiations, and because multinational corporations have largely shown themselves to be in support of a negotiated peace, even if at the expense of the local landowning class. Indeed, the only class that seems to be united in supporting Duque’s negotiating plans are Colombia’s powerful landowning elite, a social class that fears ELN’s expectation to implement land reform as part of any peace agreement.

Ultimately, what this post has shown is that, contrary to the claims of many other commentators, ELN has real bargaining power vis-a-vis Colombia’s government during negotiations. While ELN’s military position has grown recently, both the domestic and international situation is favourable to the organisation and its political strategy. This means that if incoming President Ivan Duque presses on with his current hardline demands – prison for ELN’s leadership and a refusal to accept any changes to Colombia’s political and economic structures – Colombia will face war with this organisation for at least another four years, probably many more.