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An optimistic talk with the ELN

By: León Valencia, for @infobae

Translation by: María Victoria Ramírez

In the last week of September I went to Havana to speak with the National Liberation Army (Spanish: Ejército de Liberación Nacional) ELN delegation that was packing suitcases to return through Venezuela to Colombia. I wanted to look Pablo Beltrán and his fellow delegation members in the eye and listen to their expectations regarding the negotiations with the government of Gustavo Petro. In October 2012 I had done something similar. I had gone to Oslo, where the FARC and the government of Juan Manuel Santos announced the start of peace negotiations.

I arrived from Oslo with the conviction that Santos and the FARC would sign a peace agreement. A conclusion that collided with the scepticism of many sectors of the country. I have come from Havana with a similar belief: the ELN guerrillas, at the end of a negotiation, not without ups and downs, will sign a peace agreement with the current Colombian Government.

Convictions are always a mixture of ideas and intuitions, of calculations and hunches. The atmosphere in Havana was not the best for hunches. On September 26, when I met Pablo Beltrán, Cuban radio and television were reporting minute by minute on the inexorable march of Hurricane Ian on the island. In Pinar del Río it was already in a meticulous work of destruction and in Havana its tails could be felt in gusts of water and winds that shook the trees and buildings.

Still, the talk was upbeat. Throughout the day, at the Hotel Nacional, while we looked from time to time at the increasing opacity of the Havana sky, we talked about the novelty of negotiating with a left-wing government after having tried to make peace with six right-wing governments. "This is something that we must study very carefully in the coming days when we meet in Colombia with the other colleagues from COCE (Central Comand) and the National Directorate," said Pablo Beltrán.

The first novelty is that these negotiations do not start from scratch. The starting point is what was agreed with the government of Juan Manuel Santos in more than two years of talks, that is, a six-point agenda and the fundamental lines of a bilateral ceasefire and hostilities.

The second difference is that from the beginning an active and decisive participation of civil society will be launched in the peace process based on the regions and communities experiencing the conflict. Something unprecedented and very ambitious that will require a huge effort from the National Government and local governments.

The third challenge is to put into practice step by step the agreements that are being signed between the parties at the negotiating table. Something very different from "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed", which was the guiding principle of the agreements between Santos and the FARC.

The silence of the weapons at the time of the negotiation marks another difference with previous processes that were guided by the maxim of "negotiating in the midst of the conflict" or as it was said in the time of Santos: "negotiating as if there were no conflict and doing the war as if there were no negotiation”. Precisely, one of the things that prevented the completion of the design and the beginning of the cessation of hostilities with Santos was the resistance of sectors of the Armed Forces, said Pablo Beltrán.

They also insist that the ELN is not seeking an electoral leading role as a result of the negotiation, but rather changes in the country and in the regions. They will not see the ELN, he says, asking for a representation of the guerrilla in parliamentary bodies.

Pablo Beltrán also said that Gustavo Petro's talks with the United States to seek greater autonomy in extraditions and changes in anti-drug policy, and with Álvaro Uribe Vélez to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and respect for the peace agreements with the ELN, are key players in the process that they are going to start.

Also now many sectors are skeptical and pessimistic. They do not believe that Gustavo Petro can seal a peace agreement with the ELN. It is true that culminating a peace process with authentic citizen participation, with changes in the conditions of the communities and regions, with the gradual application of the agreements, with an anticipated silence of the rifles and the consent of the United States and the security forces the right headed by Álvaro Uribe, is a difficult dream to fulfil.

But the speech the Petro government and the ELN are using are very similar. This common language creates the illusion that all obstacles will be overcome in the march towards peace.

Readers can take a look at Iván Márquez’s speech in Oslo and Humberto de la Calle's response to the guerrilla leader's words at the installation ceremony of those six-year talks. The differences were noticeable and enormous, and even so they ended in an agreement. That is the reason for my optimism with the process that is beginning.


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