With the release yesterday of Jernoc Wobert, the Canadian geologist and vice president of exploration for the Braewal Mining Corporation kidnapped by the ELN last January, talks with the government of Colombia and the ELN are one step closer.
Earlier this month, President Santos told Caracol News that “some contacts had been made with the ELN,” and that he hoped that talks would begin soon and “be faster than those with the FARC”. (“Se han hecho algunos contactos con el ELN, yo espero que esas conversaciones se inicien pronto, espero que sean más rápidas que con las Farc”.)
Last Monday, August 19, the ELN announced that it would release Wobert, who was retained in a rural gold-mining zone in the municipality of Norosí, in the department of Bolívar on January 18, 2013. The two Peruvians and three Colombians with whom he was taken were all released weeks later. Wobert was retained in tandem with a demand that the governments of Colombia and Canada investigate a claim that Braewal Mining had usurped land belonging to communities living in the referred zone. The ELN noted in a communiqué on July 29th that Braewal Mining would return two of the four mining concessions under dispute in the Sur de Bolívar region, and Braewal announced that it would be withdrawing from Colombia.
In the announcement of Wobert’s impending release, ELN commander Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, aka “Gabino”, had announced that the ELN has always been ready to dialogue, but that it must be without pre-conditions. (“El ELN siempre ha estado dispuesto al diálogo con los gobiernos, dejando claro que éste debe ser sin condiciones.”) Gabino hoped that what he called the “humanitarian act” of releasing Wober would be “the beginning of a fluid dialogue” that would “create a great movement for peace in Colombia.” He underscored the importance of an open and frank dialogue with Colombian civil society and the international community.
President Santos welcomed the announcement that Wobert’s release would be forthcoming, noting, “I celebrate this decision of the ELN. This is a decision that I consider to be a correct step, in the right direction, in order to initiate dialogues leading to the search for peace in this country.” (“Celebro esa decisión del ELN. Eso es una decisión que considero un paso correcto, en la dirección correcta, para iniciar los diálogos con miras a buscar la paz en este país.”)
Wobert’s release on Tuesday, August 27th, was facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and guaranteed by the presence of two Catholic church leaders, Archbishop Darío Monsalve of Cali and Father Francisco de Roux, the provincial of the Jesuits in Colombia, as requested by the ELN.
The ELN’s release of Wobert appears to have removed the key impediment for beginning formal talks with the ELN. It was accompanied by another call today by Gabino to open peace talks.
Lessons for the ELN Process?
The government and the ELN can learn from the recent experiences of the peace talks with the FARC in Havana. First, quiet, behind-the-scenes preparations for the talks with the FARC helped build the confidence that has enabled the parties to weather the difficulties inherent in negotiating high-stakes issues that have motivated decades of fighting. Out of the limelight, the parties were able to construct an agenda, a road map, and a methodology that have served them well in the talks.
Secondly, while there were no pre-conditions for the FARC talks, there were gestures made by both sides to show political will and create the basis for the talks. Ultimately, the ELN will have its own agenda and methodology and will need to build its own process. The recent experiences in Havana may provide some guidance. Hopefully, this process is underway and formal talks can begin soon.