BOGOTA -- Just days before facing reelection in a race too close to call, President Juan Manuel Santos announced Tuesday that his administration is in the “exploratory phase” of peace talks with the National Liberation Army – the country’s second largest guerrilla group.
In a brief statement, Santos said that the government and the ELN had been in talks since January but decided to go public with the meetings because negotiations with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas in Cuba had “entered their final phase” and that no peace deal would be complete without the ELN’s involvement.
“An international process that includes the FARC and the ELN is the best guarantee for victims and the country that this conflict is finished for good and will never be repeated,” Santos said.
The announcement wasn’t a surprise. Ever since the government began formal talks with the FARC 19 months ago, there had been hints that the ELN, which is thought to have about 3,000 fighters, would join the process.
Santos said that if formal talks do begin, they would take place outside of the country and that there would be no ceasefire — the same conditions given the FARC. In his statement, Santos thanked Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Norway and Venezuela for helping push talks along.
The announcement is important in this Andean nation, which has faced more than 50 years of civil conflict that has left more than 220,000 dead.
“This could be the beginning of a new era for Colombia — but not just Colombia, for the continent and even the world,” said Fabrizio Hochschild, head of the United Nations in Colombia.
But to some, the timing of the announcement — as Santos is facing a tight run-off against Oscar Iván Zuluaga on Sunday — seemed suspect.
“This seems cynical and opportunistic,” said Oscar Bernal, a 25-year-old cab driver. “We all want peace but you don’t do it like this, just days before the election.”
Zuluaga’s campaign called the announcement “calculated” and “manipulative.”
Zuluaga, who has the backing of popular former President Alvaro Uribe, enters Sunday’s race as the frontrunner, after winning a preliminary May 25 race with 29 percent of the vote, or three points ahead of Santos.
A former minister of finance and mayor, Zuluaga said he also wants a negotiated peace deal, but he insists that guerrilla commanders face jail terms and other sanctions. He also wants the FARC to cease all hostilities as a precondition for talks to continue.
While analysts warn that those demands might make the negotiations unviable, Zuluaga’s stance has struck a chord in this nation of 46 million people.
Polls leading into the race are mixed, but one of the most closely-watched surveys, released over the weekend by Ipsos-Napoleón Franco, gives Zuluaga 49 percent of the vote versus Santos’ 41 percent. By contrast, a recent poll by Cifras y Conceptos gives Santos 43 percent of the vote versus Zuluaga with 39 percent.
Like the FARC, the ELN began in the 1960s and also is considered a terrorist organization by Colombia and the United States. Inspired by the Cuban revolution, the ELN was steeped in Marxist-Leninist ideology and Liberation Theology. Among its most famous members was Camilo Torres, a charismatic Catholic priest who died in 1966 during his first battle with the military.
The government says little is left of the ELN’s ideology and that the group has increasingly turned to kidnapping and extortion to finance its survival.
Along with the human toll, Colombia has paid a high economic price for its prolonged guerrilla war.
On Tuesday, the United Nations and the Resource Center for Analysis of the Conflict released a study that found that the growth of gross domestic product in 2013 would have been 8.7 percent, versus its actual rate of 4.3 percent, if peace were in place.
The study also predicted that the end of the conflict would open up new land for agriculture and production, fuel foreign investment and improve the country’s educational level.
Other studies have been far less optimistic, but Hochschild said it was clear that everyone would benefit from the peace dividend.
“As long the armed conflict persists, Colombia’s economy will be walking with a hobbled foot,” he said. “With peace, all of this pent-up potential can be released.”