Marcha is the only one of the Argentine media that managed to interview the commander Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista "Gabino," historical leader of the ELN, to speak about the peace negotiations. "We wish every success to the FARC," he asserts, and calls for "the participation of the different popular sectors" at the negotiations table.
Since President Santos publicly announced the agreement to begin peace negotiations with the FARC, little had been heard from the other historical guerrilla group in the country, the National Liberation Army.
Up to now, only the ELN leader who had spoken was Carlos Marin Guarin, "Pablito," a member of the Eastern Front, where the highest levels of insurgent activity have been maintained. In a collective interview given to a group of national and international correspondents in Argentina and broadcast by Cartago TV, Guarin had stated: "Our commander Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista is in charge as leader (of the ELN), and is responsible for setting the parameters (of the negotiations) with those concerned." Rodriguez Bautista, known as "Commander Gabino," has been a member of the guerrilla force since it was formed in 1964. From a Christian family, he was appointed to leadership in 1998 after the death of the priest and guerrilla leader Manuel Perez Martinez. Marcha's correspondent in Colombia managed to contact him at the last moment and perform the following interview, where the historic leader of the ELN elaborates on how this organization plans to address this new stage in the political struggle of his country.
Marcha: Why are the FARC and not the ELN in the peace talks that were recently announced?
Commandante Gabino: First of all, accept a friendly greeting from the ELN of Colombia, with our desire to maintain this open line of communication. We hope the brotherhood of our peoples forever unite us under the banner of our historical leaders, such as San Martín, Bolívar, Artigas, Che, Camilo Torres and many other fighters for freedom and democracy.
Regarding the question: In the dialogue with President [Cesar] Gaviria in the 1990s of the last century, the insurgency was at the same table. At the other times each guerrilla force was negotiating separately. The ELN considers having the insurgency around the same negotiating table as the most promising approach to the peace process. And we must strive to make this a reality. This requires levels of unity and we are taking steps to have this happen. We are respectful of the process started by the government with the FARC compañeros and wish them every success. We hope that over time that the process now started separately may come together at one table because, except for some differences, we are forces with similar goals, which is the most important thing.
Marcha: What are today, in Colombia, the requirements for this peace that is back on everyone's lips, even President [Juan Manuel] Santos?
CG: Most Colombians are weary of an internal war that has lasted over 50 years; the various social sectors have been organizing and speaking about a political solution that concludes with an end of the conflict. This is the case with the Congress of the Peoples, which is promoting a Peace Congress for next year. Similarly, a large number of popular and social organizations have expressed themselves, saying peace is urgent. When speaking of reaching a peaceful settlement, all Colombians are hoping that this time has come; the problem is that we understand and want it in different ways, and according to different interests. The vast majority of Colombians, including the insurgency, believe that peace means social justice and equality, democracy and sovereignty. In contrast, for the ruling class, peace is achieved when it defeats the internal enemy on the battlefield, which President Santos reaffirmed days before the announcement of the start of the talks with the FARC.
To be stable and enduring, a peace process under the conditions in Colombia requires the participation not only of the insurgency and the government, but also of different popular sectors, who are the ones bearing the brunt of the war. It is understood that peace requires a long and complex process, which confronts powerful enemies who pocket enormous dividends from the war.
Marcha: What is the social situation like in the communities where the ELN operates?
CG: In the communities where the ELN is present they are experiencing a true state of war; these territories are commonly known as "red zones" and are subject to ongoing military and police operations. They control the movements of the population there, rationing supplies, particularly food and medicines, using the pretext that these goods are bound for the guerrillas.
Punitive government forces, allied with paramilitary forces, act as if they were an occupying force, subjecting the population to all kinds of indignities and repressive actions.
The regions where farmers subsist on illicit crops such as coca leaves, are accused of being owners of these crops and are subjected to permanent spraying of the fungicide glyphosate, destroying crops of coca leaf and the other agricultural products, which causes irreparable damage to animals and people, especially children, the elderly and pregnant women.
This repression has cost a considerable mass of people their legal status; they cannot go out to the urban centers to escape permanently from such territories because the armed forces considers them military targets. This creates a very serious situation for many families whose only protection is the insurgency, so the insurgency must assume responsibility for their protection during operations by government forces. This really is not new and is one of the explanations why many young peasants have no choice but to become guerrillas.
Marcha: Based on past experience, how do they think they can finish this new attempt at dialogue?
CG: Despite previously unsuccessful dialogues, we look today with expectations of the possibility of opering a serious and realistic paths to peace, as is demanded by the national majority, already worn out by more than half a century of social and armed conflict that has gone beyond all limits. The ruling class could not defeat the insurgency, nor could it defeat the popular movement, despite the cruelty of the dirty war and state terrorism.
The government forces, assisted by U.S. and Israel, have tested and applied the experiences of other wars, but despite the cruelty, both popular movements and the insurgency remain in action.
We believe that with this stubborn reality, the true way to travel is what we call a "political solution to the conflict," which means that through open dialogue involving not only the insurgents and the government, but also the most popular and diverse social expressions, will we be able to reach a responsible agreement to overcome the causes that produced the armed uprising, bilaterally stop confrontation and assume reconstruction, overcoming the deep crisis that has destroyed the social fabric and that broke the normal coexistence.
The ELN has urged a political solution to the conflict for over 20 years. The five previous governments took this proposal as weakness and tried to use it as military advantage. This time, it seems that the ruling class more realistically assumes responsibility for building peace, as demanded by the national majority.
Marcha: How does the insurgency see its future in Colombia in the years to come? Does it consider the possibility of withdrawing from the armed struggle and putting all its strength into the political struggle?
CG: We took up arms for almost 50 years because the legal and wider popular struggle did not have political and legal guarantees. When this perverse logic is changed and there are guarantees and respect for the people's struggle, the people will not be forced to take up arms to achieve their rights. But that decision is in the hands of the Colombian ruling class; as they say, the ball is in their court. And if after 50 years of fratricidal war, they are ready to recognize the majority's right to justice and social equality, democracy and sovereignty, the country will be heading toward peace. Of course this is not achieved through a decree, but it is urgent to open the path in that direction.
So we do not see that the solution is the demobilization and disarmament of the insurgents. That formula has been tried and failed because the essence of the conflict is social and gave rise to the armed uprising, thus we have to go to the causes that gave rise to this and seek solutions; only then will we reach the heart of the matter to make changes and overcome the problems.
"We appeal to Cristina Fernández for her contribution"
Second and last part of the exclusive interview conducted by Marcha with the top leader of the ELN in Colombia. Battles with the army, common goods, oil and Indigenous communities. The roles of Cuba and Venezuela in the peace negotiations. Appeal to Cristina.
In the first part of this interview, Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, popularly known as "Commander Gabino", talks about the expectations of his organization after the announcement of negotiations between the Santos government and the FARC. Continuing here, the historical leader of the ELN refers to the sabotage of the Bicentenario pipeline on behalf of "the welfare and good living conditions of future generations", denies there are conflicts with popular organizations in Venezuelan border area, and calls on governments of "UNASUR, ALBA and CELAC" to reinforce the search for peace.
Marcha: After the strong offensive of the government of former President Uribe, are there still liberated areas under guerrilla control?
Gabino Commander: In this half century of guerrilla warfare there have not been liberated territories, defined as land which the government forces cannot penetrate. The development of this fourth generation warfare does not permit territories forbidden to government forces or to the insurgent forces. What do exist are large areas where the insurgency has had roots for the past half century, and even when the enemy military force can penetrate there, it could not kill or drive out the insurgency. Analysts call those territories "red zones"; they are regions of rural population measuring hundreds of kilometers, where the state only shows its presence through its repressive forces.
Marcha: Arauca is one of the most important departments concerning oil in Colombia, and it's where the ELN has consolidated its base through actions in defense of the commons goods and Indigenous lands. What is the current situation?
CG: We have raised a sovereign proposal to the governments and to the country for the exploitation of oil, one with social benefit, but the governments would not listen because their policies have allowed international capital to impose rules for exploitation of mineral and energy resources, doing this in exchange for the funding of the war against the people. We have denounced the irrational exploitation of oil in Arauca and the country, to the detriment of the interests of the Colombian population, damage to Indigenous communities, destruction of biodiversity and serious environmental damage. Our policy coincides greatly with that of the oil workers and the population of that region.
Recently we carried out a political-military campaign between June 7 and August 16 against the armed forces that protect foreign capital. There we waged eight battles with the government army, carried out 17 ambushes, 47 commando actions, 11 explosions at the Caño Limón Coveñas, destroying two armored military vehicles and we inflicted 105 casualties on the government army and police.
From June to this date, the Bicentennial Pipeline construction is paralyzed, the result of our revolutionary action.
There is an urgent discussion of a proposed exploitation of mineral and energy resources, based on the sovereignty and welfare for Colombians, particularly for the workers and the people of the Araucana region and in harmony with the environment. We have to think of the welfare and good living of future generations; President Santos' policy on mining and energy is unpatriotic, at the service of transnational capital. And if it is not stopped, Colombia in the future will be a huge lifeless sinkhole for humans and there will be serious consequences for mother earth.
Negotiations with the government must place at the center the discussion on this sensitive matter of national interest. The ELN is prepared to suspend its revolutionary action against the oil infrastructure, if this opens the discussion on this issue to make way for a sovereign outcome, one that will benefit the majority.
Marcha: In some way the Santos government sought a modus vivendi with the Chavez government, unlike the hawkish pressure that former President Uribe pursued. Do you see this as positive?
CG: We believe that the countries of the Americas are united by brotherly historical ties, despite their political and ideological differences. The Colombian ruling class is not monolithic and one of its expressions of this is through its agents.
For both the first and the second term of Uribe, the paramilitaries were only able to get many of the votes for his election and reelection through blood and fire and terror. These things are public knowledge in Colombia. The motto of Uribe as president was the relentless fight against terrorism, to achieve "democratic security". This delusional conception led him to see all those organizations that are critical of his government as his bitter enemies, whether they be organizations, individuals or foreign governments who criticize him.
He calls all of them terrorists or supporters of terrorists; within the framework of this conception he attacked the neighboring country of Ecuador and participated in the coup attempts against the government of President Chavez. Recently, former President Uribe stated that he could not wait to attack Venezuela and carried out a campaign on the border looking to channel most backward sectors in a desperate effort to destabilize the Bolivarian government and strengthen its opposition.
President Santos is part of a wealthy family with political roots intertwined with the historical Columbian economic and political power, representing the traditional oligarchy. Santos won the presidency with electoral strength of political parties representing the oligarchic power, but also of many voters intimidated by Uribe, for whom his campaign showed no political differences with his predecessor, but was its continuation.
It's not that President Santos has deep differences with Uribe, but he has another way to govern and does not put his emphasis where Uribe does. Part of it is international relations, giving strength to the institutions and a package of reform laws of the state with a strong component of advertising.
No doubt Santos' international policy is intelligent and in tune with the times of capitalism, while Uribe was awkward and isolated his government externally, important for any country.
Marcha: Venezuela farmers' organizations have complained about the alleged presence of Colombian rebels in the neighboring country. What is the policy of the ELN in border zones and to grassroots organizations in Venezuela?
CG: Our guerrilla fronts North, Northeast and East, have been based in a large territory bordering Venezuela for more than 30 years. Our democratic have defined out policy and our deep respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of countries, governments and brotherly peoples and reaffirmed the consequences of holding such principles. The charge that our forces cross the border is an invention of the enemies of the revolutionaries on the Colombian side and the Venezuelan side of the border; from this a scandal was manufactured to serve the interests that seek to generate squabbling and animosity instead of building good relationships between the two countries.
We are aware of one of the latest advertising campaigns orchestrated by the Venezuelan opposition, which accused us of inflicting harm on people's organizations in Venezuela, and it is significant that such a campaign has been conducted by the most recalcitrant of the Venezuelan opposition in the border states of the neighboring country.
Marcha: Cuba and Venezuela are being guarantors of the peace talks of Santos and the FARC. Have you had had direct dialogues with mediators from these governments?
CG: The governments of Cuba and Venezuela have provided generous and valuable contributions in previous efforts for peace made by the ELN, with governments of Cesar Gaviria, Andres Pastrana and Alvaro Uribe, and we are certain that they now have the same perspective, something we highly value and respect.
Other governments of the continent and other regions of the world, including Norway, are interested in contributing to the peace process in Colombia. The involvement of the international community is vital for the success and reliability of the process towards peace.
Marcha: As part of the ongoing peace negotiations, can the Argentine government contribute something? What can be expected from the popular organizations of Argentina and the continent?
CG: Today, when the chances of a government dialogue with all Colombian rebels becomes possible, we again ask politely the government of President Cristina Fernandez to make a determined contribution as part of the governments of the continent, who are friends of peace in Colombia. The contribution of the international community is essential to peace of our country and the countries of UNASUR, ALBA and CELAC can provide very positive support.
The Argentine people who in its greatness, raised up symbolic figures such as San Martin, Che Guevara and many others, are the brother and sisters of the Colombian people, and their organizations should strengthen ties, solidarity and struggle to dream of and build a future of justice, democracy, sovereignty and peace that we deserve.