Colombia-Cuba Ties Could Be Another Casualty of the ELN’s Bogota Bombing

In January, after the Colombian guerilla group ELN carried out a car bomb attack against a police academy in Bogota that left 21 cadets dead, the government of President Ivan Duque called on Cuba to extradite ELN leaders—including their top commander—who are in Havana as part of a suspended peace process. Cuba’s refusal to honor the request, which would violate an agreement guaranteeing the ELN negotiators safe return in the event the talks are abandoned, is the latest point of tension between the two governments. In an email interview, Michael Camilleri, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, explains how Cuba’s role in the previous Colombia-FARC peace deal has affected bilateral ties, and the implications of the current tensions.

World Politics Review: How did Cuban-Colombian relations evolve in the decades leading up to the beginning of the Colombian peace process in 2012?

Michael Camilleri: Relations between Colombia and Cuba were turbulent for much of the Cold War period following the 1959 victory of rebel forces led by Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution. The new Castro government’s support for leftist guerrilla movements in Colombia was a frequent source of the discord. Colombia severed diplomatic relations in 1961 after Cuba was expelled from the Organization of American States. Relations were re-established in 1975, only for Bogota to sever them once more in 1981, again due to Havana’s support for the Colombian M-19 guerilla group. A decade later, Colombian President Cesar Gaviria renewed formal diplomatic ties between the two countries, and relations improved after the end of the Cold War. 

Beginning in the late 1990s, a succession of Colombian presidents—Andres Pastrana, Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos—used Havana as a staging ground to pursue peace talks with the FARC. At the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia played a key role in paving the way for Cuba’s inclusion in the summit process, which happened for the first time in 2015. 

WPR: What impact did Cuba’s hosting of peace talks with the FARC have on its diplomatic ties with Colombia? Have there been any other notable developments affecting the relationship since then?

Camilleri: Cuba’s role in hosting the talks that led to the historic 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC was very positively perceived by the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos. It occurred within a broader context of Cuban re-engagement with the region, including its participation in the 2015 Summit of the Americas and rapprochement with the United States under the Obama administration, which opened the door for the appointment of a U.S. special envoy to the peace talks in Havana. 

The regional context has shifted significantly since then. U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to reverse his predecessor’s new approach to engagement with Cuba, and Colombian President Ivan Duque opposed Santos’ peace accord with the FARC. In addition, Colombia sees the Cuban government as playing a vital role in the survival of the autocratic regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, a regime that Colombia blames for harboring guerillas, facilitating drug trafficking and forcing millions of desperate migrants to seek refuge in Colombia. Still, relations between Colombia and Cuba had not deteriorated in a significant way until the current standoff over the ELN negotiators. 

WPR: What are the implications of the current standoff over the ELN negotiators in Havana for Cuban-Colombian relations going forward?

Camilleri: The ELN’s reprehensible Jan. 17 attack on a Bogota police academy, which killed 21 and injured dozens more, prompted an understandably fierce response from the Duque administration and all sectors of Colombian society. Duque reactivated the arrest warrants against ELN negotiators who had traveled to Cuba to participate in exploratory peace talks with the government of former President Santos. Those talks had been suspended since Duque came into office, but the protocols permitting the ELN negotiators to stay in Havana remained formally in effect. When Duque asked for the Cuban government to turn the ELN leaders over, the Cubans balked, citing the protocols. 

That sparked the current standoff, which seems likely to contaminate relations for the foreseeable future. At this stage, neither government appears open to a change in position. As Duque will continue to take a hard-line approach to the ELN, he will not be concerned about the potential impact of his stance on future peace negotiations. And absent Cuba playing a more constructive role in the crisis in Venezuela—which at this point seems improbable—there is little that Havana can offer Colombia that would incentivize a cooling of tensions between the two governments.



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