Opportunities and challenges facing the Peace Talks between the Colombian government and the ELN

Foto por Congreso de los Pueblos

Foto by Congreso de los Pueblos

By Javier Castellanos* 

The beginning of the public phase of talks between the Colombian government and the ELN offers up great challenges and opportunities for citizen participation in the peace process.

With the good news of the initiation of the public phase of peace talks between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) another step forward is being taken in the peace process that is being constructed. After two years of secret talks, the Executive Committee and the ELN have established a baseline and a few point of agreement to advance in negotiations that, from now on and as announced from Venezuela a few days ago, will develop as they move through five countries (Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil and Cuba).

With novel and complementary takes on negotiations with the FARC in Havana, the parties agreed to a six-point agenda where a greater degree of openness to the participation of the Colombian people is highlighted. Main points include: 1. Participation of civil society in building peace 2. Democracy for peace 3. Transformations for Peace 4. Victims 5. End of armed conflict and 6. Implementation and they will constitute the agenda that will guide the process which to begin in Ecuador.

Establishing appropriate and effective mechanisms to make participation possible is going to be a huge challenge for social activists inasmuch as the peace that is sought has multiple meanings in dispute, meanings that vary with the differing interests of stakeholders. The process is especially challenging since the establishment, through strong public-private partnership and having the balance of power in its favor, is much more coordinated, well-oiled and organized and likely to push its notion of peace and “post-conflict” as a domestic and not a regional issue, without discussing or impacting the current economic model or other structural causes of social, political and armed conflict.

As for the Colombian people, the common people, there is an increase in, a renewal and an important rallying of grassroots organizations and the emergence of new sectors, political parties, civic organizations and movements resolutely building on the long tradition of struggle in ‘Coffee Country’. There certainly have been important advances that are reflected in higher levels of coordination, political maturity and articulation for engaging in the talks, and there are several groups that are already at the forefront like Social Committee for Peace, Clamor for Peace, the Broad Front for Peace, meetings and summits for peace as well as many other manifestations that are building on the long history and diversity of social movements for lasting peace with social justice.

However, despite this flowering of dedication to peace, there is little consolidation of effort and great fragmentation, and that constitutes an enormous challenge to successfully overcoming the roadblocks to the participation of the Colombian people, both as regards the dialogue with the “ELNers” and in the whole peace process, which must go far beyond negotiations and agreements between the national government and the guerrillas, negotiations which must also include the EPL.

Repression silenced


The principal concern about the environment surrounding the peace process in general and this stage of negotiations with the guerrillas in particular, is the violent criminalization, persecution, repression and extermination targeting activists and defenders of human rights which has, paradoxically, intensified over the past two years. (138 social leaders killed in the last 18 months is an outrageous and unseemly figure in or out of any negotiation scenario).

Another area of equal concern, is the high level of alienation and prevailing skepticism in the mindset of the majority of people about the future of the country, skepticism not only about peace but on the exercise of politics in general, all closely linked to a historical erosion of confidence mediated by political violence, abuse, politicking, corruption and debasement of war, but also thanks to the strong media manipulation by large corporations that instill and reinforce the message of skepticism, immediacy and unavoidability about the country’s problems.

The climate of fear and polarization created by the repressive state apparatus and the extreme right with its incessant paramilitary activity also play a role, but what sharpens these concerns is the real triumph of neoliberalism in Colombia after the opening up of the economy of ’91, whose effect was to impoverish the precarious national economy and at the same time instill in the populace an individualistic subjectivity, self-absorbed, impatient and consumerist, that under adverse conditions seeks to survive or subsist on a daily basis under the slogan, “there is nothing we can do here; better to work and have every man fend for himself, because there’s no other option.” We hear this attitude expressed every day, but it only works for those privileged classes that have for decades manipulated the country’s destiny for their own benefit and that amid the troubled waters take advantage of that “nimierdismo” or valuing quality of life over material things, that presupposes that: “People are tired of war, but also are tired of peace.” In other words, one thing is as bad as the other .

Along these same lines, we have the notion that government and guerrilla forces are resolving “their business” bilaterally and that’s a private scenario that should not concern the people. That attitude has given rise to a imaginarium of bystanders who passively wait for the TV ad of this or that decision, as if it were the “white smoke of the Vatican” or the failure of a reality show (without generating as much interest), which also runs counter to any desire for participation that is binding, deliberative and even charged with decision-making.

As we see, the challenges of these negotiations with the ELN are substantial, especially to the grassroots and activist movement with respect to the participation of the Colombian people in the peace process. In any case this is not to assert that this is a doomsday scenario, much less that people are uncritical and ignorant, or are totally manipulated; on the contrary, a lot of innate knowledge, along with “the wisdom of our ancestors” and the creativity of our people are what have allowed us to move forward in the midst of such an adverse and complicated situation as the Colombian scenario. Confronting these powerful capabilities with a certain dose of political realism and inventiveness, we must seize the political opportunity that presents itself, without being overly optimistic and affect the unequal balance of forces in order to democratize the peace process and the future of the country.

That will be the work needed as a continuation of these talks and an essential part of the peace process as a whole, counting on an organized populace to force the government to sit down at a negotiating table where Government and civil society meet, and debate and transform structural issues that Santos has so far refused to discuss with the guerrillas. (Nothing more and nothing less than: Economic Model, structure of the State, and International military and political policy). The agreements already reached with the FARC and the ELN, in each stage and step by step, must be stepping stones to ease the way to that goal, which would be novel and essential not only for lasting peace in Colombia and the region, but would mark a qualitative leap in the history of the negotiation processes that have taken place in Latin America.

* Member of the People’s Congress of Peoples – Argentina Chapter.

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