Colombia: guerrillas, the Pope, and a ceasefire

Both the guerrilla and the government had expressed their wish to end the talks and announce a ceasefire coinciding with the Pope's visit to Colombia. Español

Ana María García
7 September 2017

Photomontage: Juan Ruiz. Image courtesy of ¡PACIFISTA! All rights reserved.This article is being published as a product of the partnership between ¡Pacifista! and DemocraciaAbierta. Read the original text here.

According to several statements by spokesmen on both sides, it seemed that the Pope's visit to Colombia, because of its symbolism, would clearly be an appropriate time to announce the completion of the third cycle of dialogues in Quito (Ecuador) between the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Colombian government and a mutual ceasefire agreement - although the possibility of reaching such an agreement was not yet apparent. However, on the morning of September 4, two days before the Pope arrived in Bogotá, the country woke up with this piece of news: from October 1st till January 12, 2018 (102 days in total), both the guerrilla and the armed forces will cease their military operations.

The agreement was reached after slow progress in the ongoing negotiations. The government was demanding an undertaking on the part of the ELN to stop the hostilities and the blowing up of pipelines, to put an end to kidnappings, the recruitment of minors and extortions. For its part, the ELN demanded, as a prerequisite for accepting a bilateral ceasefire, guarantees on the part of the State for social and popular movements, its recognition of the systematic killing of social leaders, improving conditions for prisoners and its commitment to fight the paramilitaries.

But why did Pope Francis’s visit become a meeting point for the two delegations whose positions, until then, had been inflexible? Why did this come about at this moment in time, after the country had been witnessing the slow progress of the negotiations in Quito? What relation, if any, does the ceasefire have with the Pope’s visit? 

"The mere fact that they had considered that the Pope’s visit offered a possibility for agreeing on a bilateral cessation of hostilities means that they recognize it is an important symbol".

Luis Eduardo Celis, political advisor to Redprodepaz (a civil society network which promotes and coordinates regional programs for sustainable human development and peace) and a former member of the ELN's political structure between the 1980 and 1992, and Julián Barajas, a member of the Peace Initiatives team at the Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP), two experts who know very well the way the guerrilla thinks and are close to the process in Quito, agree that Catholic values, although not immutable over time, do survive in the ELN, whose history is marked by religious figures such as Camilo Torres and Manuel Pérez. "The mere fact that they had considered that the Pope’s visit offered a possibility for agreeing on a bilateral cessation of hostilities means that they recognize it is an important symbol," says Barajas. And Celis points out that "one of the sources from which the ELN consolidated its political culture was the so-called Liberation Theology, born as a school of thought within the Catholic Church expressing the position of priests who were particularly close to popular and working-class reality. Although they are not synonyms, Liberation Theology and these sectors of the ecclesiastical left were only a short distance away from and sometimes overlapped with the ELN movement in the neighbourhoods". 

Camilo Torres and the Spanish priest Manuel Pérez, perhaps the most emblematic figures within the ELN, were both clerics and they both promoted a synthesis between Socialist ideas and the teachings of the Catholic religion. This is why, Barajas and Celis say, the symbolism of the presence of Pope Francis as the highest representative of Catholicism, who has expressed his strong support for the peace processes in Colombia, still strikes deep chords within the eleno movement.

Today, of course, no one would be so bold as to dare associate Pope Francis with the Liberation Theology. Nevertheless, it is clear that in the guerrilla's imaginary, the social vocation he has shown in his four years of papacy is somehow identified with that of its leading figures. As a matter of fact, one day before the announcement of the ceasefire, through its ELN-Voces website, the guerrilla published an editorial piece welcoming Pope Francis and embracing some of the things that the Supreme Pontiff has said – namely, that "a Colombia in peace must have memory, courage and hope ". The editorial mentioned also the Pope’s Laudato Si encyclical, which contains "criticism of capitalism", a "guide to hope", and an exaltation of poverty, "as did the historical figure of Jesus". 

"This is a Pope who has expressed himself in a respectful and tolerant way towards communities which were once judged harshly by the Church".

"This is a Pope who has expressed himself in a respectful and tolerant way towards communities which were once judged harshly by the Church - from his mentions to members of the LGBT community, to his invitation to tolerance towards Muslims. Pope Francis worries about issues such as injustice and the environment, and is always promoting a message of peace". This is how Olimpo Cárdenas, a journalist from Periferia Prensa Alternativa and national spokesman for the Social Table for Peace, perceives him. 

So it is indeed possible, as Barajas and Celis say, to see a direct relation between the bilateral cessation of hostilities and the Pope’s arrival, "as a sign of the ELN’s desire for peace". It is also, they say, a way of making it clear that "if they are sitting at a dialogue table it is because they are willing to overcome the conflict by means other than weapons, and that as an organization they are united in this". It is worth remembering that last August 28, through Twitter, the ELN Peace delegation posted an article published by La Plena, a Caribbean alternative medium, stating that the guerrilla could consider a unilateral cessation of hostilities if an agreement with the government could not be reached. 

In fact, the de-escalation of the conflict through the ceasefire agreed between the guerrilla and the government coincides with what the elenos decided at their Fifth Congress, where, even though the peace process with the Santos government was voted on and approved, it was conditioned to it being conducted on an equal footing with the State - that is, there would be no room for unilateral decisions, because both parties would be equally involved and committed. 

Though there are still many elements pending in order to achieve a true peace at the table in Quito – such as, as Olimpo Cárdenas points out, "the muddled first point in the agenda (citizen participation) agreed between the insurgency and the State", the bilateral ceasefire, as well as being “a gesture of peace", could mean humanitarian relief for Colombians and, as Celis and Barajas say,lend “collective credibility” to the ongoing process in Quito.

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