NGOs are hopeful Colombia’s new president will keep negotiating with the country’s last major rebel group after appearing to soften his stance.
While on campaign, Duque said he would impose new conditions on talks with the ELN and even threatened to pull out of the negotiations.
But when he was sworn into office last week and after intense lobbying by foreign sponsor countries and the Catholic Church, Duque said he would take 30 days to draw up a plan with the help of the United Nations and the church.
This has led social leaders, especially from ELN-controlled regions, to feel more optimistic – though they are still mindful that the situation is fragile and war could reignite any time.
“We were very surprised at that [Duque’s position] because he previously had a more radical position and attitude,” Juan Carlos Quintero, a social leader from the ELN-controlled Catatumbo region, told magazine Pacifista.
Quintero added that the next 30 days could prove fruitful and urged the president to continue the negotiations.
Wilfredo Cañizares, of the Progress in Norte de Santander human rights group, also said he was less pessimistic, saying they were expecting him to shut off negotiations immediately.
“It really was a surprise – everything indicated that they were going to end [the talks] as soon as they reached power or at least were going to suspend them,” Cañizares told Pacifista, adding the 30 days were “important.”
The Catholic church in Quibdo, the capital of war-torn Choco province in west Colombia, said they would be urging Duque to keep up the talks with the group regardless of the 30-day evaluation’s outcome.
Former President Juan Manuel Santos had difficulty keeping the talks alive as the guerrillas blame the government of the killing of social leaders while the government has insisted that the ELN must effectively declare a unilateral ceasefire.
But the leftist rebels are stronger than they have been in a long time after taking over territories previously occupied by the FARC, the former guerrilla group that demobilized last year.
International groups have constantly warned Duque that pulling out of the talks with the ELN would be irresponsible as the government is unlikely to defeat the guerrillas; the security forces can’t even control Colombia’s national territory and borders.
Duque last week appeared to be tough on the group, saying he would not accept kidnapping as a “tool to blackmail the state,” but did nothing in the end.
Adam Isacson, a senior analyst at Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), confirmed to Colombia Reports that Duque has “clearly softened his line.”
“Earlier, he had been insisting that the ELN not only cease hostilities, but concentrate into specific zones in order to verify the ceasefire,” Isacson explained.
In his speech, Duque made no mention of concentration or cantonment as a precondition for talks continuing. It doesn’t make sense to shut down the talks, especially if a bilateral cessation of hostilities is possible.
Analyst Adam Isacson
“But even if it isn’t possible, and combat continues, ‘negotiating while fighting’ is the way the FARC talks took place between 2012 and 2016. The goal then is to find ways to decelerate the fighting, and build confidence between the parties.”
The Washington DC-based analyst warned if the ELN were to do something that “weakens trust or accelerates the fighting,” the government could easily pull out.
The ELN have repeatedly said they want the country’s new president to carry on with the negotiations and have refrained from carrying out high-profile attacks.
Formed in 1964 by a group of intellectuals inspired by the Cuban revolution and Marxist ideology, the ELN group was a big player in Colombia’s half-century civil war.
The group funds itself by “taxing” population in ELN territory, illegal mining and drug trafficking – although the guerrillas deny this.