Colombia: Interview with Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, Commander of the ELN

“We are deeply convinced that the way out for Colombia is peace, but peace with social justice and real change. We will continue to seek peace for as long as we exist, but not peace at any price. “

By William Parra
Translated by Internationalist 360°

Peace and resistance are two words that define the high command of the National Liberation Army (ELN), who remain in Cuba after meeting with their FARC-EP colleagues to review the peace accords signed between the FARC  and the government of Juan Manuel Santos.

For Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (known as Gabino) and Antonio García, leaders of the ELN central command, peace is urgently needed for Colombia, but peace based on real change,  not at any price. For this reason, they are clear that until a genuine peace agreement can be reached with the Colombian state, their path is resistance.

People have chanted in their mobilizations the slogan that peace is change, as if that phrase could sufficiently summarize the situation in Colombia. In reality, Colombia is living a tragedy with the number of dead, displaced and disappeared surpassing that of all other dictatorships in Latin America,” says Gabino.

The ELN’s top commander says they are prepared to remain at the negotiating table in Quito if the Colombian government demonstrates a genuine will for peace.

“We are deeply convinced that the way out for Colombia is peace, but peace with social justice. We find that the peace they offer, offered by the oligarchy, is a peace that silences the rifles so long as no one hinders them in their extractivist plans and their goal to deliver the riches of country to foreign capitals, and with that peace we we are not cooperating.

There is the difficulty: what peace? Peace is a generic that everyone uses today in Colombia. Everyone wants peace, even Uribe wants peace, and that may accumulate campaign votes. But the peace required by Colombia involves profound change and transformation that includes a redistribution of  the country’s wealth, one of the most grave causes of conflict. So we will continue to seek peace for as long as we exist, because we believe that this is the way out, but  as I have already said, not peace at any price.”

In a restaurant in the sector where the FARC was  meeting with journalists to give their balance sheets on the progress of the dialogues, the ELN commander said that the main difference that will mark each of these processes is society itself.  For this reason, they have insisted that the first point of the agenda cross-cutting all negotiations in Quito is the participation of society.

“We have said that in order for any peace process in Colombia to have real achievements, it has to be a process that is defended and fought for by the masses. We believe that as an insurgency, we do not have the right to speak for those great masses, we can not decide for them. We are revolutionaries and it is in our vision, in our thinking, the defense of popular interests, but not for us to make a bilateral negotiation for the masses to later approve.

We believe that in the peace process, we are motivators, so that in the process, the majorities, through their organizations, define and raise the issues important to them. What do the peasant masses want to solve the problem of land in Colombia? We can say, we have criteria, but it is better for the peasants who need the land to speak for themselves,” says Nicolás Rodríguez vehemently.

In the Cuban capital, for the first time in many years, the Central Command members agree to face-to-face interviews. Formerly, the ELN command only answered questions through videos recorded in their camp and sent to the respective media. Today, taking advantage of the door that the government opened to meet with the FARC secretariat, they sit down with journalists to discuss the dialogues in Quito. The ELN welcome the opportunity to answer questions that will be included in a documentary  to be broadcast on the Arabic channel AL-Mayadeen and screened throughout the Middle East.

Nicolás expresses frankly the ELN’s concerns about the current peace process, and especially its compliance.

“Someone said a few days ago that this was oligarchy, referring to the FARC process, which wants to hand over weapons, and this still poses problems, referring to obstacles of the agreements of the FARC. If these agreements are not fulfilled, we who are the other side of the insurgency say, “Will it be up to us if they will comply? ” If they were being complied with, we would say that they are being fulfilled, and let us strive.”

The Colombian government is not complying with the agreements with the FARC

Oligarchy does not want peace to be more than symbolic and the only social benefits they concede have to serve their interests.

For the ELN, it is clear that the Colombian government is not complying with the agreements with the FARC,

“Not only are they not fulfilling them, they are killing guerrillas who are in the transit zones, which forces us to ask  questions. The problem is not our lack of will, but objective reality that prevents us from being enthusiastic about concretizing these agreements. Even so we continue talks, we are not going to give up, but we do observe and we are alert.”

Gabino says that the ELN does not want to stop the dialogue in Ecuador.

“We do not renounce peace, we can not resign. If the next government does not open the negotiations to allow for a peace process with the ELN, we will seek other avenues through the international community to strengthen a peace process in the country. How? Well, we will look to the form, because we know that there are people who really want peace, entrepreneurs, politicians, soldiers, people of the middle class in Colombia, the people want peace.

Oligarchy does not want peace to be more than symbolic and the only social benefits they concede have to serve their interests.  This is the real problem. But we will never give up seeking peace in Colombia.”

Is the  ELN  ready to discuss the possibility of the abandonment of arms, is the armed struggle justified today?

ELN Gabino responds without hesitation:

“The government wanted us abandon arms. We do not know if it is possible, because the conditions that produced the armed uprising are still in force, therefore our weapons are needed. Why does the Government want us to lay down our arms? If there was a genuine will for peace on their part, commitments made since the beginning of dialogue with the Santos government began, would have been honored. We raised the urgency of a bilateral ceasefire. They imposed three conditions: a peace process had to be conducted abroad, in the midst of conflict, without intermediaries. We said a bilateral cease-fire would temper the conflict, save us the loss of human lives and bring humanitarian relief to the territories where we are, where we live permanently in a state of conflict and war. The government refused. We want there to be a verified bilateral cessation, and we presented formulas so that cessation can be verified. I believe that this is a clear example of what we want, that the war should stop, and that we seek bilateral cessation, to generate discussion in an atmosphere of tranquility where war does not affect the process.”

For the leaders of the Central Command of the National Liberation Army the current conditions of the Colombian conflict necessitate that  any agreement be made bilaterally. They are not willing to sign anything that is unilateral.

“We have an agenda and in this we contemplate all the nodal issues that must be discussed in order to reach a peace agreement. What we have reiterated is that this order must be respected. The first point would be the participation of society. The government always wants to impose unilateral issues on us, we will not accept that.  All states deprive people of freedom for different reasons.  We are a force for change, a rebel force, we have codes, we have agreements with communities and they must be considered. Where there is total absence of the state, we respect the norms of those communities. Whoever violates them in our territories , we have the right to deprive him of freedom, as does the state,” says Gabino.

While sipping a coffee, Nicolás Rodríguez responds to the news that the ELN would be coping with fallout from  areas where the FARC established transition zones.

“Really, if we had the strength in men to reach those territories, we would certainly do it, but we do not have it. In that we are sincere and we must tell the truth. We have territories where we have always been, and if we vacate those territories to cover others, problems would arise.  In peripheral areas we shared with FARC colleagues in the same region, it is easier. But reaching the territories in the south of the country, in the eastern plains, is very difficult. Yet this is something that is being used by the government to justify continued repression.”

To conclude,  the last question refers to the implications when the ELN becomes the last armed guerrilla group in the country, which was declared by CELAC, a zone of peace.

“It is a very big challenge, a tremendous responsibility, we are convinced that there are people who trust us. We know that there are people in Colombia who continue to admire the Colombian resistance and the insurgency. And in that sense, we, as long as the conditions for insurgency exist, will be insurgents, without giving up, of course, to seek peace in Colombia, that is the priority. But we feel first of all a great commitment, a great responsibility and we accept that challenge”.