El Colombiano reported that the National Liberation Army (ELN) sent negotiators to Havana, but that they were turned away by the Cuban authorities because they did not have the permission of the Colombian government.
The news comes a week after the guerrilla group released a video (see below) calling on the armed forces to support the peace talks underway between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In the recording, which was published on the group’s website, commander Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” asks for “deep reflection and a complete support of this peace process,” and warns that there can be no lasting peace without the participation of the whole society.
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The ELN has repeatedly expressed interest in joining the peace process alongside the FARC, but the government has so far rebuffed the group, although President Juan Manuel Santos has said that he would be open to other rebel forces taking part when the time is right.
It is plausible that the ELN might have sent a team to Cuba without authorization from the government in an attempt to force its hand. In November, the ELN leadership released a communique announcing that they had selected a team of negotiators that was ready to start talks, and stated that they were prepared to begin without preconditions.
Colombian media reported last month that ELN representatives had arrived in Cuba on December 3, with the aim of joining talks with the government. If such reports are true, it is unclear how the ELN negotiation team managed to arrange transport to Cuba without the knowledge of the Colombian authorities. The FARC’s designated negotiators were granted safe passage by the government, which arranged for the suspension of arrest warrants against them.
It is probable that the Santos government will begin formal talks with the ELN in the coming months. As InSight Crime has pointed out, including the second biggest rebel force in negotiations is vital for a lasting peace process in Colombia. Otherwise, there will be little to stop the ELN from taking over the territory and criminal businesses previously controlled by the FARC. However, the government will likely continue dictating the pace of the peace process, and the ELN guerrillas may have little other option except to follow the government’s lead.
Santos’ administration has taken a hard line in talks with the FARC, refusing to wind down military operations after the guerrillas announced a ceasefire in November, and stating publicly that the rebels have until November 2013 to reach an agreement, or the talks are over.