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Colombia validates Cuba’s role in peace negotiations with the ELN guerrilla

Following the ceasefire agreement in Havana with the country’s last armed rebels, President Gustavo Petro urged the U.S. to remove the Caribbean island from its state sponsors of terrorism list

Miguel Díaz-Canel and Gustavo Petro in Havana at the end of the third round of peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN
Miguel Díaz-Canel and Gustavo Petro in Havana at the end of the third round of peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN; June 9, 2023.Presidencia de la República
Santiago Torrado

Cuba is once again a stage for Colombia’s pursuit of peace, as President Gustavo Petro shook hands with top National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla commander Antonio García in Havana on June 9. The scene evoked memories of when former President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander-in-chief Rodrigo Timochenko Londoño shook hands towards the end of their peace negotiations. Both handshakes took place in front of their hosts, a Cuban president. Back then it was Raúl Castro and last week it was President Miguel Díaz-Canel.

The “bilateral, national and temporary” cease-fire was announced in the Cuban government’s El Laguito mansion, the site of many milestones in the long FARC negotiations. The June 9 “Cuba accords” lay the groundwork for an initial six-month ceasefire with the ELN and its integration into civil society. The accords are the first substantive sign of progress with the ELN, Colombia’s last remaining guerrilla group. The talks will resume in Venezuela, where they first began, and mark the end of Havana’s role in the peace process, viewed by some as an opportunity for Cuba’s redemption on the world stage.

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Petro thanked Cuba for decades of “hospitality” in Colombia’s peace process and characterized its inclusion in the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism as “an act of profound diplomatic injustice.” He said that he asked President Joe Biden in a recent meeting to right this wrong. Negotiators for the government and the guerrillas both thanked the Cubans profusely for their role and the high cost it has exacted.

The diplomatic hostility that characterized the Iván Duque administration (2018-2022) led to Havana’s reinclusion on that blacklist, which entails sanctions on individuals and countries that have certain business dealings with Cuba. Duque, known for his strident opposition to the FARC agreement, inherited active ELN negotiations from his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos. However, after the guerrilla attack on a Bogotá military school in January 2019 that claimed 23 lives, Duque broke off talks. He also ignored previous agreements co-signed by guarantor countries, which stranded the rebel delegation in Cuba. Despite the protections established in the agreements, Cuba refused to extradite them to Colombia.

When the Trump administration designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism in January 2021, just nine days before he left office, it justified its decision on Duque’s repeated claims about Cuba. The country had dropped off the list in 2015, and Trump’s last-minute move reversed efforts by the Obama administration to rebuild ties with its longtime Cold War foe. It also complicated any efforts by the Biden administration to thaw diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo warned about the consequences should the delicate Colombian peace negotiations crumble, and said it could mean the end of any hope for rapprochement with the ELN and for better U.S.-Cuba relations. The two architects of the historic FARC agreement felt compelled to advocate for Cuba, a co-guarantor with Norway of the peace agreement. At a recent meeting of The Elders (an international non-governmental organization of senior statesmen, peace activists and human rights advocates), world leaders and former President Santos encouraged President Biden to revoke Cuba’s designation. “Cuba should be applauded for the crucial role it played in helping end decades of conflict and facilitate reconciliation in Colombia, and should not face sanctions for having done so,” said Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring the country’s long civil war to an end. Petro quickly chimed in with his support.

Petro has restored the Bogotá-Havana relationship to its state before Duque, which was a parenthesis in the Colombian diplomatic tradition, says international relations expert Sandra Borda, a professor at the University of the Andes (Colombia). “Practically every administration has understood that it’s very difficult to conduct negotiations with Colombian guerrilla groups without Cuba’s participation,” she said. Colombia is playing a key role in reintegrating Cuba into the international community and repairing relations with Washington. However, despite these efforts, there is little likelihood the U.S. will remove Havana from its blacklist (which includes Syria, Iran, and North Korea) because of the current political climate. “The Biden administration will try to move to the political center, which means getting a little tougher on immigration and less flexibility on Cuba,” said Borda.

Since his inauguration, Petro’s administration has pivoted Colombian diplomacy toward achieving “total peace,” a flagship initiative that seeks to decisively implement the FARC agreement, dialogue with the ELN and subjugate criminal groups like the Gulf Clan. The journey of peace with the ELN, which was born more than 50 years ago inspired by the Cuban revolution, must go through Havana, Colombia’s steadfast partner in its quest for a lasting peace.

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