Colombia: Interview with the ELN


In Havana, Cuba, a few days ago, we were able to interview the commander and chief peace negotiator of Colombia’s National Liberation Army, ELN, Pablo Beltrán. The meeting took place during a very special moment on the Latin American continent: days before the military coup against the Bolivian state was carried out and when thousands of people — young and old — in Chile were confronting the pacos (police forces and riot control squads) and their violent repression in the streets, demanding that Sebastián Piñera and all his political backers go.

Beltrán is a good interviewee. He has never placed limits on us any of the times we have spoken. This time, we discussed the likelihood of peace, the guerrilla struggle, imperialism and the transformations underway in Latin America. Here is the result:

Pablo Beltrán (L) with Carlos Aznárez (R). | Source: Resumen Latinoamericano

Ten months ago, possible peace talks with the Colombian government were effectively suspended. Is there any sort of possibility that these might be renewed in the short term?

There are positive and negative signs. The current government that reached the presidential palace in Bogotá 15 months ago had said that it would tear the peace agreement to shreds and, in 15 months, it has done that. That’s the negative. On the positive side, it has had to confront society’s rejection of its obsession with finishing off the peace process. Consequently, it has not had it easy, these have been 15 months of tension between the government, which we call (far-right former President Álvaro) Uribe’s third government, that tries to crush peace, and broad sectors of society that say to it, “Hold on just a moment.”

That has led to some interesting practical outcomes. For example, some of the things they have attempted to eliminate from the peace agreement that was signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, society has exerted pressure to protect and demand that they be respected. Similarly, there are social sectors that say that the peace talks should continue and be expanded, that the path of a political solution should not be abandoned. Thus, in these 15 months of Uribe’s government there is that bad news of a war-mongering sector of society that is unconditional in its support of the United States’ war plans, but there is a Colombian society that has begun to take up the fight for peace as its own struggle.

Meanwhile, you all have made the decision to remain here waiting for a possibility to open up.

Yes, of course. We have two overlapping realities governing our actions. First, our national leadership has told us that there is no reason for us to leave the negotiating table. The government left, we are here waiting for them to return. Second, this Government has prevented part of our delegation from consulting with our bases. That is our methodology of work. When one is outside the country, it is necessary to go back and organize work sessions, deliver information, and get updated instructions. So, this Government does not want to comply with the protocols that it signed where it is stated that in the case of difficulties with or a breakdown of negotiations it is the government itself which will guarantee the return home of these delegations.

Thus, they are acting outside the bounds of an agreement, which is in writing, called the Breakdown Protocol, and the guarantor countries are complaining to (nominal Colombian President Iván) Duque and Uribe, telling them that that cannot be done, that it is an international agreement, that peace negotiations respect those protocols, and that this government will not be the first to ignore it. So, we have those two realities to bear in mind.

Within that framework, Iván Duque himself emphatically demanded that the Cuban government accede to his demand to extradite all of you who are here.

Yes, and I’ll draw a comparison. Once, Trump went to Vietnam to talk to the North Koreans, and left angrily because he did not get what he wanted. He left the meeting and abandoned the country. What if Trump had told the Vietnamese he wanted them to do him a favor and ordered that they detain the Korean delegation, which did not submit to his dictates, that he wanted it extradited and made prisoner in the United States. That’s an idea that only Uribe could think of. That is, Trump didn’t think of it but it did come to Uribe’s mind.

What is the situation like for the ELN on the ground? We have received conflicting reports. On the one hand, we have heard that movement and mobility are nearly impossible; on the other, that you have lost troops and have been reduced to defensive maneuvers rather than being on the offensive.

This is war. There are 500,000 regime troops who believe we are the enemy to be eliminated. Thus, they are especially desirous of lopping off the head of the ELN, of our National Leadership. Up until now, they have not been able to accomplish this but they continue with that goal in mind.

Yes, there is a heavy saturation of troops in all the territories. For example, along the Colombian Pacific coast, where our Western Front operates, there are more troops than people at the moment. It is a zone of Indigenous and Afro-Colombians, but we are seeing a proliferation of troops like never before. If we travel to the northeast border with Venezuela, in Catatumbo, to the south of Lake Maracaibo, there are 17,000 soldiers.

So, they are doing all they can to attack us. Of course we engage in defensive actions, we seek to make that huge counter-insurgency operation fall into a void; we do not want our leaders to be killed. There are combats and casualties, of course. As in all wars, it is not just a matter of military engagement. There is also a disinformation campaign being waged as part of the war, a media war, that is very strong. The most serious thing happening is that there is a dirty war being carried out by paramilitaries that is focused on killing the leaders of the best-organized communities.

So, these are very perverse flanks of battle. The one of open war is against us. The one of smearing and political marginalization, which is the media war, and the criminalization of the people who are most well-organized. This is a three-dimensional war. In the first dimension, which, strictly speaking, is the known irregular war that involves the ELN, it can be said that this is where one suffers the least.

Nonetheless, the ex-Minister of Defense Luis Fernando Navarro pointed out that, apparently, the guerrilla encampments are in Venezuela and that 44 percent of the ELN’s troops are in Venezuelan territory. What is your response to that?

That Minister just fell. On Nov. 6, he was sacked. Pressure from the citizenry sacked him, because he is a complicit minister. That is, what the military does, he justifies, he minimizes, he conceals, and that is why he fell.

But, within the framework of that media war, they grew accustomed to alleging that we have a presence in 10 or 15 states in Venezuela, that we are the Hezbollah that protects the Bolivarian government, and other such things. So we have said that Venezuela and Colombia have a shared border that is 2,200 kilometers in length, and we are on that border, it’s true, but there’s a reality there which is that all those communities are bi-national, they have been there forever. And, the ELN is the same way, it is on that border and, at any given moment, might be on one side of the border or the other because that is how it has always been historically. But, that we are all the way over in the mouth of the Orinoco river, that is only something that Uribe can dream up.

Let’s talk a bit about the current moment in Colombia. There were elections recently (regional elections for mayors and governors were held on October 27, 2019). What role did you all play in that contest, did you support any of the candidates? What is your assessment of the electoral results?

At this moment, Duque’s government is reaching 70 percent disapproval. It is a bad government because, in true neoliberal fashion, it reduces taxes on the rich and shifts the tax burden onto the poor. It spends more than it brings in and, then, it has to sell off the most profitable public enterprises, it enacts tax reforms that practically plunder the middle class, and dedicates itself to safeguarding the large investments made by extractivist multinationals. Thus, this is not a government that serves the majority of Colombia but a government of the one percent.

As a result, the government was punished at the polls and suffered an electoral defeat in the Oct. 27 regional elections. What the ELN does is report this, and support the creation of coalitions between the left and center that present an alternative to that far right project. In that sense, even though we do not participate in elections, we do push for there to be unity, coalitions, and programs that can stand as alternatives to this evil government. That is our work.

In that vein, are you all satisfied? Has the left advanced or is it only a case of a protest vote, whether for the left or not?

In Colombia, there are two electoral powers that face off against each other, over and above the left and center-right: what are called the electoral machines, and voting independent of any party. The electoral machines rule in the medium-sized and small cities, and independent voting is of greater strength in the large cities. Colombia has several cities with over a million inhabitants. In the past elections, you saw this tendency manifest itself. The large cities tend to vote independently and people there vote for political programs.

From there on down, what you see is vote-buying, paramilitaries pressuring voters and blatant fraud. So, that can be better measured in the large cities. But, on the other hand, there is the machine, which never loses.

The phenomenon of right-wing paramilitarism continues unabated and has cost the lives of many ex-FARC combatants and social leaders. So, the system, the establishment, continues using the Army on the one hand, increasing militarization, and, on the other, also uses paramilitaries.

Two examples: they asked an Attorney General, (Alfonso) Gómez Méndez, about ten years ago, how he explained the phenomenon of paramilitarism and he said that there came a point at which the various factions of the elite concluded that using paramilitaries to combat the guerrillas was a viable option.

So, it was a political decision, one that still stands. Then, what you see are two characteristic types of paramilitary operations. There is the one in which state troops themselves remove their uniforms and engage in what in Colombia is known as the sicariato (the professional hit man industry). By means of this, they have killed approximately 800 social leaders in these three years since the FARC signed the accords (on Nov. 24, 2016), and about 150 ex-combatants and 50 of their family members. That is to say, that if we add it all up, in three years of the peace process with the FARC, there have already been 1,000 civilians killed, between leaders and ex-combatants. That is the main body of people killed in this so-called “post-conflict” era.

In conclusion, they signed an agreement with the FARC, finished them off, and dedicated themselves to decapitating the alternative forces and the most well-organized communities. That, they accomplish, fundamentally, via hitman operations carried out by soldiers and police sometimes in alliance with criminal syndicates. Colombia is a country that has 200,000 hectares (494,211 acres) planted with coca. It is the main cocaine exporter in the world. It has large and powerful cartels, each with its own paramilitary squads that have ties to soldiers and police. What they do is they corrupt the Armed Forces and then, when these state forces need to carry out dirty war operations, they task these mafia death squads with the job. So, there’s a symbiosis. That’s the war phenomenon that has produced those one thousand dead civilians, in a campaign of selective extermination, in the three years since the signing of the peace accords with the FARC.

Despite this, the popular resistance, the social organizations, do not give up. There is now a call for a national strike on Nov. 21. There are many reasons for this, teachers who are poorly compensated, students are joining…

More regions of the country that are marginalized and do not receive revenues from the center of the country. Uribe said that there are international anarchists who are organizing the Nov. 21 strike and that the justification for it is that the Duque government had imposed a set of economic measures. In effect, there is a package of tax reforms that the government is promoting, it has increased the sales tax. Now, it wants to implement a pension reform that is a copy of what they did in Chile, or of that which they haven’t yet copied. They also have a labor law reform and a proposal to raise the minimum wage that includes a measure to pay young people half of what the minimum wage is.

So, all this starts to fill up the cup of indignation and when a people starts becoming indignant, it loses its fear. They know that and they know that on Nov. 21 there is going to be a large mobilization reflecting that malaise.

What is the situation like for prisoners in Colombia?

First, the regime says that there are no political prisoners, just as it claims that there is no internal armed conflict. Political prisoners live in a situation that is worse than that of the prisoner population of Colombia in general. Colombia, at the moment, has 120,000 prisoners; there are still FARC prisoners who never had their legal situations resolved, and our prisoners who number over half a thousand, 20 percent of whom are female comrades who are in the worst conditions in maximum security prisons. Many of them are slowly dying because they do not receive basic medical attention. To sum it up, if the prisons are in such bad shape that they have been described as a system of concentration camps by a former Minister of Justice, political prisoners are even worse off.

Do you confirm or deny the recent arrest of one of your combatants, alias Cantinflas, that has been making the rounds on social media, especially in the North American press agencies?

That is what they do, since they are not able to kill guerrilla soldiers on the battlefield they have created this figure of the subversive auxiliary. For example, if they want to attack our forces in Catatumbo, they murder or detain leaders in Tibú, which is the main city in Catatumbo. I am not clear on the specifics of the case you are referring to but that is the modus operandi. They say that so-and-so, who is a union leader, is an ELN militiaman and that they were the finance chief as well.

In Colombia, we have a joke which is that whoever is arrested is ascended to the rank of Commander, because they have to demonstrate that they are meeting their quota of high-value targets. They exaggerate in order to claim incredible results.

Along those same lines, during the past few weeks details have come out about the murder of children, the Army bombing a supposed guerrilla encampment when in reality it was children who were killed. But, regarding this question, there was a whole campaign arguing that the guerrilla armies in their desperation continue to recruit children at gunpoint. In this case, they mentioned the FARC, but obviously the implication is that all the guerrilla armies are guilty. What can you tell us about this?

That is false for two reasons. First, entry into ELN is voluntary, and people stay voluntarily. That is, when anyone wants to leave they can do so. For us, the word conscription means to forcibly take someone to war and that is prohibited by the ELN’s Statutes. It is a question of principles. Second, we have a code of war that incorporates into it the fundamentals of humanitarian international law, which places an age limit on enlisting. We abide by that.

When there have been cases of minors who are overcome with problems and they go with the guerrillas because they want to flee the conditions of poverty in which they live, they are not permitted to stay. It is not that the guerrillas take them, it is that the miserable conditions they live in make the guerrilla armies appear like a viable option for forming part of a collective, a group, a place where one can be accompanied and fight for life in a more organized, and different, manner than in the struggle for individual survival. In these cases, if there are minors who knock on our door seeking entry, they are placed in zones or homes, but they are not permitted to participate in the guerrilla ranks or in combats.

A few months ago, when some members of the FARC, like Iván Marquez and Santrich, announced that they were returning to the armed struggle, they said they were going to reach out to the ELN, something which augured good relations. Has this happened?

As far as I know, no. Our fronts in the different regions of Colombia do have contact with many left-wing organizations; it is very possible that some of their groups have made contact with our groups. But, from there to having a meeting between the national leadership of the ELN and Iván and Santrich’s group, which is called Nueva Marquetalia, that has not happened.

The continent is in a state of convulsion these days, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Among the good, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva is now free. Among the bad, what is happening in Bolivia.

What the progressive tide defeated in 2004 was the Washington Consensus, which was the neoliberal set of crude and savage policies. These governments came along and created important social advances but also created new levels of consciousness and organization. Then came the Yankee recolonization, neoconservatism, the attempt to return to a more closed-off backyard.

Now, we are witnessing a third moment in which that recolonization is cracking, after that neoliberal set of policies has enriched a corrupt one percent and impoverished and excluded the rest. So, indignation is springing up because of the price of gasoline, of public transportation, because of corruption, because of hunger. I mean, peoples are not without sensibilities and dignity.

This springing up of dignity that is traversing the continent is against those lasting effects of the Washington Consensus, and is also a thermometer of something that is very important. Since liberating ourselves from Spain 200 years ago, the United States has fought to ensure that this be its area of influence and that no one else touches it. Today, that is no longer assured. Thus, if these peoples rebel against the imperialist center that means that they are contributing to the decline of North American imperialism.

In the face of the rebellions there are always a series of doubts in the sense that they are massive, many of them borne of self-mobilizations (I am referring to the case of Chile), and questioning of the traditional, bourgeois political parties. But, at the same time, they lack an organization or political leadership that can steer them to a good destination. And, then, what happens often is that the parties, which people repudiate and demand that they exit the scene, reappear in a different guise and co-opt that explosion of rebellion.

There is an interesting debate here. During the years of the progressive tide (the governments of Hugo Chávez, Lula, Nestor Kirchner, Evo Morales), a debate ensued over the role of the social movements, of the parties and political vanguards, and what kind of symbiosis should exist between them. That debate is ongoing.

Let’s take the case of Brazil. There is a strong social movement, there are left-wing parties, but the experiences from these years have also opened up questions over the vices that the left-wing parties learned from the right-wing parties. So, yes, it is a critique that is very necessary, and these rebellions will hopefully shake the foundations of all that which has revealed itself to have been inadequately constructed. If the parties are sufficiently self-critical they will listen and become better; those that do not will start to get left by the historical wayside, because that is history for you, you either position yourself to be or cease to be a political subject that is capable of living up to the aspirations of the people.

I come from Argentina where, in a few days (Dec. 10, 2019), there will be a change in government. Macri is leaving, which is not an insignificant thing seeing as how in four years he did everything he could to destroy the country. I am interested to know your reflections on how you all view this new Argentinian moment.

Macri’s defeat is a victory of the rising politicization of the Argentinian people, which has taken a qualitative leap and was expressed at the polls, but is best expressed in all those struggles of women, workers, young people, Indigenous peoples, and by the multiple demands made by society. Sometimes it is forgotten that elections do not exist in a vacuum but, instead, serve as a measure of struggles on other planes. That is the case with Evo or with the countless elections in Venezuela; if there were not a component of social struggle that politicizes, that organizes, that advances, well, you would not see the same electoral results. So, who reaps the electoral gains is one thing.

For example, the Bogotá Mayor’s Office was won by a woman from the Green Party; she has raised many hopes. To the degree that she lives up to these expectations she can even go on to become President. But, if she does not follow through on what people are expecting, then people have their own criteria by which to judge whether or not she held up her end of the bargain. The same thing can be said of Argentina. There is a large amount of social and political struggle that is becoming a flood and which is reflected, in part, in the electoral arena, but the government will have to choose, within its circumstances, which of those demands to take up and which not, that is wisdom. What we can say is that we are going to see further moments of struggle there.

Finally, we are in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg. Is the contradistinction between reform and revolution still a valid one for you?

Yes, for the following the reason. I am going to cite my own country as an example. Right now, there is a very strong fight against fracking as a means for oil production in Colombia, but the fight against fracking outside a socialist perspective, or of a new society, of an energy transition, of another economic model, is a lost cause. That is, every step one takes must have an overriding aim because, if not, it will go no further than reformism. However, if those long-term goals do not have medium-term goals preceding them they cannot be achieved either. Thus, an objective in itself is worthy to the degree that it is anchored in a strategic perspective, that is what will not allow it to be merely reformist.

Note: This article was published by Carlos Aznárez for Resumen Latinoamericano on November 17, 2019.

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