Exclusive Interview with Pablo Beltrán, Chief Negotiator of Colombia’s ELN

Pablo Beltrán spoke with the Argentine journalist and educator Claudia Korol regarding the Colombian peace talks.

February 09, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch

From Havana, Cuba the chief of the delegation of peace of the National Liberation Army (ELN) of Colombia, Pablo Beltrán (PB) speaks exclusively with the Argentine journalist and educator Claudia Korol (CK), in a joint production of Barricada TV, Alba Tv, Marcha, Peoples Dispatch, Resumen Latinoamericano, Espejos Todavía, Notas, Colombia Informa, Revista Hekatombe and Alerta Territorio.

[English Translations, subtitling by Zoe PC, Peoples Dispatch, the following the transcript of the interview.]

CK: This dialogue is designed for those of us on the continent, in the world, that are concerned, we are concerned for the search for peace in Colombia, of the struggle for peace that we know is the peace of the continent as well. So, before beginning the dialogue I will ask you to introduce yourself.

PB: -I am Pablo Beltrán the Chief of the Delegation of Dialogue of the ELN (National Liberation Army) that is here in Cuba. We have been here for eight months, since we left Ecuador. A National Congress named me as Chief of the Delegation. I have been in this role for the last four years, despite the difficulties, we will persist in the search for a political solution to the conflict. Since I entered the ELN, in the 70s when I was an engineering student, well one tenders a guerrilla organization because they consider that the power should be held by the people. This slogan, this objective of life persists and if we are in the struggle now for a political solution, it is not to put aside this struggle for the power to be in the hands of the people but we aspire to begin a different phase of struggle where the violence is taken out of politics but in this country, Colombia, there will only be solutions when the people govern, not before. So that’s where we are at.

CK: Yes, we were in the Congress for Peace, and there it was said that peace is not only the silence of the guns. In any case, for many of us (and I speak in plural because I think I am referring to many of us on the continent who support the Peace Process) the attack on the police school in Bogotá surprised us and we did not know how to interpret it because it seemed as if it were a marking an end if the political will for peace by the ELN. I would like to have your perspective on this.

PB: It is not an end to a will for peace. Furthermore, in Colombia today we are in what we call the “third government of Alvaro Uribe. And he has said that he is not interested in peace. Since this Government took office, six months ago, we have been here [in Havana] waiting for them to name their delegation but the response has been “we are going to make the ELN bleed, we are going to soften them militarily and then we will see if we rejoin the dialogues”. At the end of the year, we offered them a unilateral ceasefire for Christmas and New Year. But the high command of the Army and the Government said “for us there is no ceasefire and we will continue attacking them”; and, effectively, this is what they did. So what we have done is remain here waiting for them to re-initiate the Dialogues that we began with Santos. They deliberately do not come because in the meantime they are scaling up attacks in our zones. It is in this context that the attack on the police quarters in Bogotá took place on January 17.

CK: Ok, the Government of Colombia has demanded the extradition of the leaders of the ELN that are part of these Dialogues in Cuba, they have demanded that the Cuban government do this. And we know that this breaks with the protocols that were agreed upon in the negotiation process itself. We would like if you would explain a little better what these protocols are and how they would be broken.

PB: On March 20, 2016, we finished what we called the Confidential Phase, signing in Caracas an Agenda of Conversation. Five days later we signed three protocols: the first protocol of how the trips of the Delegation would be between Colombia and the distinct countries that would host the dialogue (because they are various); second, protocol on how the cycle of conversations would take place; and the third protocol, where it says that in case that there is a rupture of the conversations it is necessary to guarantee a safe return of the Delegation to the ELN camps.

So this protocol of a safe return of the Delegation of the ELN to its camps is what the Duque government has ignored and the one that the guarantor countries are reminding him that he must respect because otherwise why would the State make agreements? The Colombian public opinion is telling them that there is no precedent to ignore agreements made as the State because it is an essential norm that if you do not respect an agreement, what if it were an economic agreement with a transnational company? Ok, go and disrespect it. There is a clause about not respected agreements that would bring them before an international tribunal where they would receive economic sanctions but since it is not with a transnational, they do not pay much attention to the pact of the State.

CK: Was the consultation between you all, the Delegation, and the forces that are in Colombia part of these agreements, or considered within these agreements?

PB: Yes, of course. When we started the Public Phase of the Conversations in February 2017 in Quito, and now in Havana, we have been able to carry out six cycles of conversations. Every time that a cycle finished, a part of the Delegation would travel to Colombia to inform our Board and bring new instructions. This was agreed upon in the Methodology of the Conversations, because this Delegation is not autonomous nor plenipotentiary. This Delegation acts under a mandate that is given to them by the National Board in Colombia. Since the issues change, the situation of the country is changing, this must be analyzed in order to bring new instructions. Now, after the dialogue was finished with Santos, the Duque Government has not allowed this delegation to [return to Colombia and] consult [with the National Board in Colombia] and update their mandate.

CK: So they have no allowed this, but the Colombian Government has also said that it has not met, not had any contact with you all as a Delegation. It ignores your presence, the dialogue, no? How has this been?

PB: When I was a boy they taught me that when you tell lies your nose grows…this is false. The Commissioner of Peace that Duque appointed, we have spoken…around a dozen times on the phone dealing with different things. I have sent dozens of written communications to him and he answers me on the phone. We organized the stay of the Delegation here. We have confirmed to them who of us is still here and who has returned to Colombia to know who they have to maintain legally protected to continue in the Delegation. We have worked on all of this since August 7, so in six months. So it is false that there has been no communication. In Colombia we have two comrades that were pardoned by an agreement that we made at the beginning of 2017 and they work in Colombia as Peace Promoters. On December 20, 2018, Ceballos, the Peace Commissioner, signed a protocol that said “ok we will work like this”.

So there have been a series of moments where we have had contact with the Government: in meetings, in written communication and in telephonic communications that show that the Government recognizes this Delegation, and makes this Delegation wait for them to name their own Delegation, and they also recognize that the members of the ELN are promoting peace in Colombia. They have admitted all of this. Furthermore, in meetings, the Peace Commissioner has thanked Cuba for standing with and supporting the stay of the Delegation here. All of this has happened and all of it is true. And denying this, would be untruthful.

CK: In addition to the Government Delegation that must be there but has not showed up according to what you say; are the guarantor states involved? For example, in addition to the Government of Cuba, Norway and Venezuela, has there been any response to this crisis?

PB: Yes of course. Today we heard the declaration of the Chilean guarantor, Raúl Vergara, who is one the signing witnesses of these protocols, and in Santiago, Chile he said: “I call on the President of Chile to honor the agreements wherein we were guarantors and not ignore them”. Political pressure cannot lead them to ignore the commitments of the State.

Cuba, on Saturday 19 of January also emitted a statement to the Colombian Government saying that Cuba is a guarantor of these protocols and that they will apply them. And Norway as well, this Tuesday, Tuesday January 22, published a public communique where they reiterate the same. Norway, the Kingdom of Norway is a guarantor of these protocols and it will look that they are respected. So if you look, the internal opinion in Colombia asks the government to respect the agreements of the State. That they do not break their word. And the guarantors ask them the same. So this request that the Government allow for a safe return of the Delegation has been backed up but unfortunately the Government is deaf to this.

CK: Can you remember the principle milestones since the Negotiations Process for the political solution began until this moment where it seems to enter in crisis?

PB: The first contact with the Santos Government was in August 2012. Which is almost seven years ago. It began, the Agenda of Conversations was signed on March 30, 2016 in Caracas. The Public Phase of the Conversations began in February 2017 in Quito. Until August 1, 2018, six cycles of conversations were held. This what has happened with the Conversations. The most important thing that has come out of these six cycles of talks was that when Pope Francis came to Colombia we decreed a bilateral ceasefire for 101 days that ended in January 2018 but in general was obeyed.

It showed something of utmost importance which is that we can and we should carry-out the peace talks in the middle of a bilateral ceasefire. What do i say that it is of utmost importance? Because when we spoke for the first time to Santos, he established three conditions: first condition, that the dialogues be direct; second conditions, that the dialogues would be held outside of Colombia; and third condition, that the dialogues take place in the midst of the conflict. When we agreed to a bilateral ceasefire of 101 days, we changed our doctrine. And we showed to Colombia and to the world that peace talks can take place in the midst of a bilateral ceasefire. This is one of the great lessons that this effort to find the political solution in Colombia leaves us.

CK: And under your understanding, when is it broken or when does the series of incidents of war continue lately? Because now, there is a lot of attention on the attack on the police barracks but there have been antecedents…

PB: Yes of course. When the FARC signed the Peace Agreements in November 2016, two years ago, all of the military machinery of the Colombian regime unleashed itself against us. This was the first step, and since then there have been many painful incidents. On July 26 last year, one of our Commanders was without his troops, without his uniform, unarmed, in a place with civilians and was assassinated. They could not arrest him, they assassinated just like they did to Alfonso Cano back then. Then there have also been a series of bombings. The worst was on December 24 at 11 at night. They unleashed 10 bombs of 500 pounds each on one of our camps, those are the ones they use, so that is two and a half tons of bombs. And fortunately we did not have any casualties because we were able to cover the position in time, but it shows that while we were doing a Christmas-time ceasefire they were bombing us. And this has continued. So this incident on January 17 is kind of a response to what has been an offensive and aggressive attitude that has a tactical goal that is very clear: militarily weaken the ELN to later decide whether or not they do a peace talk with them. So this is the context wherein the attack to the police garrison happened in Bogotá on January 17.

CK: How do you evaluate the implications of this situation created by the attack and for the international situation for Cuba and Venezuela? What impacts can this act have on an international level?

PB: In this case of Cuba, when we came here eight months ago, the Cuban government welcomed us and made us a request: you are welcome here as the Peace Delegation, you can carry-out the rounds of conversations that you need to, but from Cuba you should not do any other type of activity that is outside your roles as Delegation. We have fulfilled this very carefully. The Delegation of Dialogues has been dedicated to this: to the Conversations and it is not involved with what happens in Colombia. But the Government of the United States is pushing the Colombian Government so that they say that from Cuba they are doing things against Colombia. Which is not true.

This is an old goal of the administration in Washington, which is try and show that Cuba is a sanctuary refuge for terrorists, which is false. So they have taken this as an excuse to attack Cuba. And in the same way with Venezuela because the protocols that I mentioned before, for example the protocol of transportation, determines detail to detail, step by step that all of the transportation of the ELN towards any country for any round of dialogue, has to pass through Venezuela. What does this mean? We go to the Colombian-Venezuelan border, the Venezuelan security forces receive us, they bring us to a Venezuelan airport and from there we travel to for example Cuba or Ecuador. This is the transportation protocol, so today with this transportation protocol they want to make it seem like Venezuela is hosting organization like ours, when precisely the transportation protocol demands and asks Venezuela to support the transportation of the Delegation of Dialogues of the ELN in this way.

CK: Another issue that is concerning to many who support peace is what has happened since the Peace Agreements [with the Government and the FARC] and what the crime of the social leaders in Colombia means. It is something really that for those of us who are observing from other territories we think of it in terms of genocide, like what happened with the Genocide of the Unión Patriótica and there are many instances of this on our continent. And it also demarcates a specific risk when thinking about the road to peace. So how are you understanding this action of the Government that even comes before Duque took office, of the Colombian establishment as a response to the Peace Agreements achieved until now?

PB: This is a great tragedy. Why? Because in theory, when a guerrilla like the FARC, like us, begin a process of political solution to the internal armed conflict, this means that the aspiration is that those that stop being guerrilla fighters would convert into a political party to dispute the Government in a legal way. So the struggle for power continues, but in a different way. This is the theory. But, how does the Colombian regime operate? In a very deceitful way. Because for example, they brought the FARC to disarming themselves, they brought them to convert into a party. But today, two long years after the Agreements were signed it is clear that the majority of the social leaders who are being assassinated are working with legal political and economic projects that came out of the Peace Agreements. Whether it be the substitution of crops of illicit use, or alternative socio-economic projects, or political parties or unions that oppose the regime. So the statistics today show that the primary political force that has been affected is Marcha Patriótica (The Patriotic March) that has been accompanying the process with the FARC from before and continues there.

So in the ELN what is the analysis we have, well that it is a fallacy what is written in the Agenda of Conversations with us. That point five says “we will put an end to the armed conflict” and as such, we will take the violence out of politics. So even though this is a stated goal in the agenda of dialogues of the ELN, today the Colombian regime is showing that it does not have any desire to take the violence out of politics. What is their goal? Very simple: if the people that are against the regime, that engage in social protest, their leaders will systematically killed, the best leaders of the most organized and most resilient communities. What is the regime saying? That the regime will not allow this political and social opposition force that emerges in Colombia and with the peace processes has taken strength, to consolidate into an alternative political force that challenges their regime, that challenges their power, that takes them out of power. So they are killing the alternative forces at their nascent moment. This is the killing of social leaders and human rights defenders that is occurring today in Colombia. The regime says “No it’s not me”. But they use what they call Undercover Operations. The intelligence organisms carry-out the surveillance and they use mafias and gangs as hitmen. This is proven in the last 40 years in Colombia. They kill with someone else’s dagger.

This modality of killing in the cradle of the alternative forces is what is happening today and this has a tragic result that every three days two social leaders are killed. From 2016 to 2017 the killing of social leaders increased 40%, and from 2017 to 2018 the killing of social leaders increased 50%. So the tendency shows that this genocide will continue to grow. Within the ELN bases how do we read this: we have a contradiction, that we have a interlocutor in the peace talks that does not want to take the violence out of politics, that does not want change, that does not want to cede privileges, that does not only want to disappear the guerrilla, to finish it, to pacify it; but they do not want to change anything.

How will there not be any doubts in the bases of the ELN about a future of a political solution? There have to be. There are doubts, uncertainties. With whom are we speaking? So when they say to me that the ELN is divided. I say no, each agreement that we make we follow-through. But in our grassroots there are many doubts because of what the government is doing to the FARC.

CK: It is well known that Colombia is a laboratory from where exercises are done and replicated and even after they are then taught across the continent. Exercises of military and paramilitary violence, trainers, educators, judges, parliamentarians, military instructors that have arrived to our countries. And this also makes us ask where to you locate the place of Colombia in the strategy of war of the United States in this international moment for Latin America? Some talk of the “Israel of Latin America”, how do you see this?

PB: Well, this is the tragedy: since the United States promoted the separation of Panama (I’m talking about 1903) the presence of the Government of the United States as a principle ally of the Colombian elite grows in importance. As such Colombia as a country plays an important role in the global plan of the war of imperialism. It’s simple: how do you explain that a country that is working on a Peace Process, finishes and at the same time affiliates itself to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)?

It is the first country of Latin America to affiliate to NATO when the will is to convert Latin America and the Caribbean into a territory of peace. So this does not make sense. Really, the United States needs to have the Colombian military machinery active to make its war plans. So this is the tragedy.

Colombia at the same time is an exporter of counterinsurgency. If you look at Mexico, the principle Police Generals went to instruct the Mexican government to convert the criminal and paramilitary groups into a counterinsurgency force and sustain the regime. If you follow down for all of Central America the Colombian mafia and Colombian police is who trains these forces. If you continue south, you find that the Minister of Education of Brazil is an ultra-right-wing Colombian of fundamentalist training. So Colombia does not only export soldiers and police, but it also exports extreme right-wing ministers of education.

CK: We know that in the NO vote to the referendum there was a very important influence from religious fundamentalism as well as in other moments in political life. How does religious fundamentalism influence the option of war.

PB: In these moments it is a decisive instrument. For example, in New Zealand the fundamentalist evangelical religious have taken the government. In Brazil they supported Bolsonaro. Here they are one of the principle pillars of support of sustaining the Government of Alvaro Uribe in Colombia.

For example, yesterday they voted and of all of the political parties in the Colombian Congress, only two support Duque ignoring the protocols; the party of Uribe, the Democratic Center, and a party of Evangelical religious fundamentalists. So they are part of the strategy. In our case, many of our grassroots are people with Christian beliefs but from a perspective of Liberation Theology. So of course, in this moment, the religious factor has been taken advantage of. They have built parties, they have gotten rich. And from the United States they support and feed all of this! The solution is not that there should be no religious beliefs. The religious beliefs are a factor of liberation or of fatalism, in this in Colombia there is a debate.

CK: There is also an ideology of the extreme right-wing that has permeated the working-class sectors, it seems to have taken root in distinct sectors. How does this ideological machinery work of the extreme-right?

PB: Neoliberalism continues to generate more poverty, including of the middle sectors. But additionally, on its own it is a big project of exclusion. This exclusion and impoverishment leaves the people without perspectives of life, of future of hope. These fundamentalist churches give them this: suffer now, it doesn’t matter and in the other life you will enjoy. They find the explanation to all of these evils of Neoliberalism. The situation of growing impoverishment and exclusion fits with a fatalist explanation in terms of religious beliefs. Really one exists for the other, it is symbiotic.

CK: What role is the media plays in general, and in particular in this situation where they have deemed the attack on the police barracks as an act of extreme war, some even called it a terrorist attack.

PB: I think the Romans also called Christ a terrorist. It is an old habit. The different media houses in Colombia are very powerful, very good and completely monopolized. The great multi-millionaires have behind them very big media emporiums that sustain them. For example, the biggest guy, the biggest multimillionaire of Colombia, Sarmiento Angulo, is the owner of the most important newspaper of the country: El Tiempo. The multimillionaire who comes next in importance, Ardila Lulle, is the owner of the chains of radio and television called RCN. The Prisa Group, from Spain, but that now has many Arab investors, owns Caracol Radio. The Santo Domingo Group owns Caracol Television.

So the big media, the ones of high penetration are totally at the service of the economic monopolies. So what freedom of expression? For example, El Tiempo of Bogotá is one of the principal newspapers of Colombia. How will it talk about the corruption of Odebrecht – which is the biggest scandal currently- if the owner of the newspaper is one of the most implicated in these incidents. They have to put smoke curtains in other places so that this is not seen. Because of this, the attack on the barracks was magnified, yes it was a strong attack but it also served as a smoke curtain to not see the rest. We have said this before and we will continue to say so: there cannot be a differentiated mourning. No sir, the mourning is the same because we are all Colombians. It is not that one hurts more than the other no.

What must we search for? A political solution to the conflict, so that all of these sorrows come to an end, not just one. And here the media always propagates a differed pain, they propagate xenophobia, they pull out smoke curtains to cover up the real problems of the country. And of course, if you add the Evangelical religious fundamentalist ideologies to this with the massive media manipulation, you see the results in the referendum on the peace agreements in 2016 that ended with people voting against peace.

CK: How would you describe this Colombian oligarchy that acts in these conflicts with a lot of political initiative?

PB: Well they have been able to maintain a war of 70 years, since they killed Gaitán, in 48, because they are, first they do not have will to change and are very penetrated by corruption. Second, to sustain themselves, they have converted into the principal and unconditional ally of North American imperialism. Third, to sustain themselves, as I said, they are carrying out a genocide against the opposition, be it social leaders, ex-guerrilleros, human rights defenders. Basically they are perpetrators of genocide. Fourth, when one makes agreements with them, they do not follow through. They do not have any problems betraying agreements or pacts. So of course, they are a very complex adversary, very expert and very difficult.

CK: What geopolitical and economic interests are behind the war and the continuity of the war in Colombia? And which are thinking of peace?

PB: What happens in Colombia affects Venezuela, what happens in Venezuela affects Colombia. Venezuela is the principle legal reserve of petroleum in the world. The principle deposits of mineral resources on the continent are in Canada and in the Shield of Guayana, which is in Venezuela. And Chávez came and said: “No, no, no. Here we are going to do business. If you want to do business with us, 49% for you and 51% to Venezuela. And here everyone pays royalties and taxes. You cannot take away the petroleum for free.” Which is what they had been doing for the last 100 years! So Chávez took a nationalist decision, and of course the United States is not going to like that. Everything that happens in Colombia is in function of the war that the United States has against Venezuela. This is one part.

The second: Colombia itself also has many things to take from it: many natural resources. The strong base of extreme right paramilitarism is situated on the border with Panama where the Pacific and Atlantic ocean meet. If you look at the geological studies, it is the principle reserve of platinum in America. Samir Amin said: “in the crisis of the powers of the north, the only thing that will come is a greater pillaging of the south”. And what does this pillaging look like? It’s the imperialist war, and this is what we are suffering from.

CK: To start closing, I have two questions. The ELN was born with the inspiration of Camilo Torres, who is also an inspiration for all of Latin America. In this context, today, what would Camilo say to the people of the continent?

PB: Camilo was, first of all, anti-imperialist. He said “we have the right to decide our own destinies and not be the backyard of anyone. Second, “the dominant classes will never govern in favor of our people”. We must take them out of power, the people must do this, the dominant classes must turn over power to the people. And what they have to choose is how they turn the power over: if it is peacefully or not. This is what Camilo said in ‘65 and it continues to be very pertinent in the ELN today, for the Colombian people and something for the people of Latin America and the Caribbean to reflect on.

CK: It is clear now that you have a will to work for a peaceful solution, a political solution. There were some doubts about this and now we will share this in other organizations. What messages do you have for the people’s movements that were surprised by these decisions? What can the people who support peace in Colombia do concretely?

PB: Two messages. The first: the people’s movements of the continent can count on the ELN for two things, so that Latin America and the Caribbean can truly be territories of peace, to fight for political solutions, to fight for peace with social justice. But also, since we are not alone in this, and the imperialist forces want to take back control over its backyard, you can count on us to resist this imperialist war, to defend life and the territories. And we know this well, because we have been doing it for 55 years. So we count on the people’s movements of the continent and these movements can count on us for this: to work for peace but also to engage in resistance.

What to do in this context? For us it is very important that in every country there is organization, unity and struggle. And there are two factors that for us are very important in terms of principles to defend: the first, the right of every people to decide its destiny, there is no room or justification for foreign intervention. Ever, and in this we are completely Bolivarian. No empires or powers that tell us what to do. We are not minors, and that they tell us what to do with the Amazonía for example. This is the first: no intervention.

And second, the fuel so that there are wars between states is to encourage xenophobia, and the first level of xenophobia is to show that the migrant is bad. So the one that arrives to Europe is the one that brings all of the bad things. The Venezuelans that arrive to Colombia are the ones that bring the problems. The Venezuelans that arrive to Ecuador are the ones that bring the problems. So, the bad ones are the Venezuelans, and since the Venezuelans come out of Venezuela, it is necessary to intervene in Venezuela. It is a logic that seems basic but that is how the fuel for war works. So no xenophobia. We are all Latin Americans, all of us are brothers and sisters and there is no one who is legal or illegal, or one who is worth more or worth less. And there should be no racist hatred either.

No intervention, no xenophobia. We must educate the new generations in this and engage in the battle of ideas.

CK: Thank you very much.

PB: Thank you.