Washington’s return of Cuba to its list of state sponsors of terrorism after the island nation’s repeated refusals to extradite ELN leaders has endeared it to Colombia’s government — but likely dooms any remaining prospects of the guerrilla group returning to the negotiating table.
On May 13, the US State Department said in a statement that Cuba, among other countries, was “not cooperating fully” with counterterrorism efforts. The main reason given was Havana’s harboring of 10 leaders of the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN), and its refusal to extradite them to Colombia.
Colombia called for the extradition of the ELN leaders after the guerrilla group’s January 2019 car bomb attack on a police training school in Bogotá, in which 21 people were killed. The ELN leaders went to Cuba as part of peace negotiations.
Besides suspending the talks, Colombia’s President Iván Duque reactivated arrest warrants against the 10 ELN representatives, including commander-in-chief Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” and chief negotiator Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán.” Since the bombing and suspension of talks, Colombia has made repeated demands for extradition of the ELN leaders, particularly Rodríguez Bautista.
Cuba has refused these requests, stating that it would abide by the protocols of the negotiations, which would allow the presence of ELN representatives in the country.
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The extradition of the ELN leaders would be seen as a win for President Duque, especially since the guerrilla group is a primary target of Colombia’s government and arguably Latin America’s foremost criminal threat. But the United States’ blacklisting of Cuba is unlikely to help Duque achieve this goal.
Colombia and the United States have found a common foe in the Cuban government. The administration of President Donald Trump has slapped a number of economic and political sanctions on Cuba. And any pressure to have the ELN leaders extradited will be welcomed by Bogotá, while costing the US little.
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But it is another nail in the coffin of peace talks with the ELN, which had shown signs that it was still interested in negotiations, despite Duque’s hardline stance against the group.
In late March, the ELN declared a ceasefire across the country as a “gesture” of good will during the coronavirus pandemic, saying that it was still open to talks. The ceasefire was canceled a month later, with the group citing that “the government … has not listened to proposals to advance in the search for peace.”
The Colombian government, meanwhile, has continued its military attacks on the group. ELN leader alias “Mocho Tierra” — considered a high-value target for his involvement in drug trafficking — was killed in an airstrike, along with three others, the Defense Ministry announced in a May 14 news release.
The move by the United States to add Cuba to its terrorism list has also had political ramifications in Colombia. The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común – FARC) political party announced it would no longer participate in efforts to verify the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. The FARC political party was created after the agreement that saw the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrilla group demobilize.
The talks between the Colombian government and the FARC were also held in Cuba.