Wednesday, October 5

Spain, before the negotiations with the Colombian ELN guerrilla

In his recent visit to Colombia, President Sánchez has offered to be one of the guarantor countries in the upcoming negotiations with the ELN guerrillas, and even to host said negotiations in Spain. The first makes sense and is very laudable, but the second does not. I will try to argue it. First of all, it is necessary to clarify what are the different roles of third parties that are activated in a peace process, which can be those of mediation (facilitation) or accompanying, either as guarantors or as friendly countries. The structure of the negotiation will be discussed and agreed upon by the parties involved in the coming weeks, and it could be that a Spanish participation would be of interest. The ELN is a guerrilla that has always sought and appreciated international involvement, since it perceives that this will give the process more security.

Being a guarantor in peace talks is something that entails an enormous responsibility, and it can never be a mere protocol or vanity act, since it implies a political, diplomatic, logistical and economic commitment so that the negotiations run as smoothly as possible. It means actively participating in all the negotiating rounds, which can last for years, maintaining permanent contact with all the actors involved, helping to overcome difficult moments and crises, of which there are many, and, already in the final stage, if agreements, help ensure compliance. A guarantor country is in the good and the bad.

The ELN is a guerrilla that has been trying to negotiate with different Colombian governments for 31 years, without success so far. It is a very demanding group and it is not easy to negotiate, and although the new Colombian president, Gustavo Petro, has the best of wills, nothing predicts that things will go smoothly and everything will be resolved in a few months. Absolutely. It is based, yes, on the advantage that the new government wants greater social participation in the affairs of the country, and this is one of the mainstays in the historical demands of the ELN.

The leaders of this guerrilla group have been on Cuban soil for a few years, since the last attempt, also unsuccessful, began there, and they were trapped on the island when the talks broke down. Cuba has experience in hosting negotiations with Colombian guerrillas, it is a safe place and it has the advantage of being close to Colombia. Along with Norway, Cuba was also the facilitator of the last negotiations with the FARC. Between 2005 and 2007, Cuba was also the venue for negotiations with the ELN, which were cut short by an uncalled-for demand by the Colombian government. In this attempt, Spain, Norway and Switzerland acted as accompanying countries. Since I had the opportunity to be present at the start of these negotiations in December 2005, I must point out that, beyond the opening speech made by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of the Government of Spain, the presence of the Spanish delegation was very low profile in those two years, without comparison with the commitment of Norway or Switzerland, very active on the ground.

Around that time I also had another experience, in this case from the Philippines, because Spain wanted to help the Norwegian government in the mediation it was carrying out with a guerrilla from the Philippines, to no avail. We arranged a discreet meeting at the Amsterdam airport between the guerrilla negotiating delegation and a high-ranking foreign official from the Spanish government. I was embarrassed, because in that first contact, which must always be very delicate, subtle, diplomatic and tentative, the Spanish official demanded the disarmament of the guerrillas so that Spain could help in the process. You couldn’t start worse, and the offer died on the same day. I explain these anecdotes to clearly see what it means to be part of a group of guarantor and facilitator countries. You never work in a peace process in an imposing way or simply by posturing, to look good. No, it is a very serious commitment and one that must be thought through carefully, since it implies years of dedication, having a good team and also maintaining a low profile in the face of public opinion, since one works with great reserve and confidentiality. It is not about showing off, but about being effective.

As I have mentioned, who will accompany the peace process, whether as guarantors, facilitators or companions, will be decided by the parties in conflict by mutual agreement, not the countries that offer themselves. Thus, Spain’s offer will have to be decided by the ELN and the Colombian government. Spain could become one of the guarantor countries, but it is very unlikely that it will act as a facilitator (mediator), and less so as the host country. The ELN is on the lists of terrorist groups in the European Union, currently made up of 21 groups and 13 people at the nominal level. Switzerland and Norway, not being in the EU, have always enjoyed the privilege of being able to host talks with groups that are on that list. Spain, on the other hand, cannot do so, at least without first removing the ELN from the list, something unthinkable in the short term. It is surprising, then, that Spanish territory has been offered as the venue for the negotiations. It makes more sense that they continue to be made in Cuba or, failing that, in another Latin American country, such as Chile, which is probably one of the guarantor countries. In addition, and this is a novelty, the current political circumstances in Colombia make it possible that this time the negotiations are held in Colombia itself, at least in part.

In short, there are multiple ways to help the new Colombian government to pacify its country, where negotiations with the ELN are just one piece on the board. Getting the formula right depends on the authentic will to serve, which must be free from presumptuousness, vanity and unhelpful boasting. If the attitude is frank and professional, whether as a friendly country or as a guarantor, Spain may have the opportunity to help a sister country that is trying to get out of so many years of darkness.