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Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela

ELN’s activity fosters regional tension and global polarisation


By: Alessia Cappelletti & Anastasija Kuznecova

On the 2nd of February 2021, Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) released their annual conflict report highlighting 10 conflicts to worry about in 2021. Likewise, the International Crisis Group (ICG) had already put out a similar list on the 30th of December 2020. Both lists barely focus on Latin America, though where they do, they warn about two different countries: Colombia and Venezuela.

According to ACLED, Colombia is to observe closely for violence against political leaders. On the other hand, the ICG spots Venezuela as the next possible battleground. Neither focused on the conflict that might escalate between the two countries, involving factions at play in their border areas, and the broader geopolitical tensions in connection to that.

Insurgency presence

Colombia has been suffering from insurgency and paramilitarism presence throughout the country since the 1960s. Even though a seemingly successful peace agreement with the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) was approved and signed in November 2016, Colombia is far from achieving countrywide peace.

A substantial number of FARC members went back to fighting after the peace agreement had been poorly implemented and paramilitary affiliates often still engage in serious human rights breaches and drug trafficking. However, the one insurgency that failed to ever arrive close to a peace accord is the ELN. The ELN, or Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army), is a Colombian guerrilla active since the 1960s and of Marxist-Leninist and Christian imprint.

Recent ELN activity

After years of battles and kidnappings, in 2002 some preliminary peace discussion started and continued in 2005 in Cuba. Peace consultations began again in February 2017, and achieved a ceasefire for the presidential transition of 2018, but were subsequently suspended by the elected Iván Duque administration (2018-present). The talks ended drastically at the beginning of 2019.

On the 17th of January 2019, a car bomb exploded in Colombia’s capital, killing 21 people, and injuring around 70. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the ELN who stated the bombing was a response to the attacks of the Colombian army during the previous ceasefire. The government of Ivan Duque, which already opposed the peace agreement reached with the FARC in 2016, officially suspended the peace talks with the ELN.

First Political Tensions: Cuba, Colombia and the ELN

After the attack, President Duque announced that Colombia will double down on the persecution of the guerrilla and called for the extradition of the ELN leaders from Cuba. However, the country did not extradite the ELN members nor responded to an Interpol Red Notice against the commander Nicolas Rodriguez. Cuba supposedly acted in such way to comply with negotiation protocols signed with the previous Santos administration.1 Almost two years after the request was made and no action taken, on the 11th of January 2021, the United States blacklisted Cuba for aiding terrorism, and mentioned the bomb attacks to justify the action.

On the 8th of February 2021, Cuba’s ambassador warned the Colombian government about a possible ELN plan to attack Bogotá. The missive spoke about a ‘military’ – and not ‘terrorist’ - attack in the capital, which led some to think Cuba does not see the ELN as a terrorist threat.4 As the relations between Cuba and Colombia have been at a stall since 2019, the gesture has broader geopolitical implications. It could either be a show of willingness to cooperate or a strategy for leaving the US blacklisting for terrorism as fast as possible.

More tensions: ELN and Venezuela

ELN’s recent history signals that the relation between the guerrilla and the Venezuelan military had its hiccups along the way, but the two have benefitted from each other for a while. An investigation conducted by InSight Crime in 2018 found that the ELN was present in twelve Venezuelan states, and clashes between the guerrilla and the military, sometimes also involving civilians, occurred often. However, the government of Venezuela always refused to acknowledge the presence of the guerrilla in its territory or even properly respond to its attacks. Already in 2018, the ELN allegedly had the support of the National Armed Forces of Venezuela (FANV).5

It is clear what the ELN can get out of such a relationship. The group enjoys protection, a degree of power over marginalized communities and a place from where to manage their illegal activities unbothered. Venezuela, on the other hand, may be getting access to the drug trade and some degree of military protection along the border areas. Already in 2019, a reportage by The Telegraph warned about the willingness of the ELN to protect Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in case of a US invasion.

In February 2021, Caracol News revealed a series of videos and emails that indicate the presence of Colombian guerrilla groups enjoying protection from certain sectors of Venezuelan government. Notably, the name of Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino López was also mentioned. According to Caracol, FARC dissidences had contacted Russian government’s officials in Venezuela to buy weapons, while the ELN had contacts with the current Venezuelan ambassador in Mexico. A member of the central command of the ELN, alias Pablito, may be also involved in drug trafficking with members of the FANV.6

Risk of Armed Conflict

In September 2019, President Duque already denounced the government of Maduro for working against Colombia, claiming he has proof that Venezuela and ELN plan to attack Colombia. This issue was supposed to be investigated by the UN, but never got solved.

Similarly, Vladimir Padrino, declared on February 28 that Venezuela will be denouncing Colombia to the UN for attempting to destabilise their country. Padrino accused Colombia of having paramilitary groups that are against the Venezuelan government in its territory, stating that it constitutes an “act of war.”10

For years, the Colombian-Venezuelan border has been filled with various armed and illegal groups abusing citizens of both countries. Military action in the neighbour’s territory is therefore not an unthinkable event. Already in 2008, President Álvaro Uribe, who leads the current presidential party, authorised an attack on a FARC camp in Ecuador, showing his devotion to fight – rather than dialogue with – guerrilla groups. The tensions between the two countries and the longstanding animosity between the Colombian presidential party and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’ legacy make for a time bomb to watch closely.

Growing Regional Tensions

Cuba's and Venezuela's ties with ELN have increased their tensions with Colombia. The former US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, indicated that Cuba's support for FARC and ELN beyond their own borders, as well as of Maduro has facilitated "permissive environment for international terrorists to live and thrive within Venezuela."7

The sanctions imposed in January on the island have hurt Cuba's economy as it has affected their trade with other countries and increased investors' concerns. In addition, US foreign assistance and loans by institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have been restrained.

The growing tensions with Cuba worry Colombia’s political opposition. They have stated that the current Peace Commissioner, Miguel Ceballos, is a threat to peace in the country as he refuses to restart the peace negotiations with ELN and celebrated the US government’s decision of blacklisting Cuba.8

Some experts believe that the sanctions have pushed Cuba and Venezuela closer together.9 This leads to increased tensions in the region, as Colombia and Venezuela are currently, and have been for years, at odds given the allegations of the Venezuelan government cooperating with ELN and FARC dissidents.

Zooming out on the geopolitical scene

The sanctions on Cuba seem to have strengthened the country's relationship with Russia. The two countries' military cooperation dates back to the Soviet era. In addition, the countries cooperate in the energy sector. Russia has also supported Cuba with debt relief and Russian news media, such as RT and Sputnik, are often used as main sources by Cuban media.

Russia has additionally strong ties with Venezuela, which strengthened with Chávez presidency and has continued with Maduro. Venezuela has been specifically dependent on Russian financial support in the country's economic crisis. In addition, Russia has also invested in Venezuelan oil and gas sector, and likewise provides space for Russian media.

The closer bond between Venezuela and Cuba seems to benefit Russia and its interest in the region. Particularly since Russian's relationship with Colombia has been kept on low-level economic interaction due to the country's ties with the US. Russia has historically supported ELN and FARC, and traded weapons for cocaine.11

The US has, on the other hand, historically always shown great support to the Colombian government, especially during Uribe’s presidency (2002-2010). By sanctioning Cuba and denouncing Maduro’s regime, it is clear that there is, once again, polarisation between the US and Russia power plays.

During the Trump administration, US Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abram said the US would support Colombia if an armed conflict would break out between Colombia and Venezuela.12 Biden’s administration has shown dissatisfaction with Colombia's efforts of stopping the increasing number of murders of Colombian social leaders. However, the new administration is also strongly opposed to Maduro’s regime, and openly supports opponent Juan Guaidó.

Increased Russian Presence

Russia's presence in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased in recent years, mainly focusing on arms sales, commercial agreements, and political outreach. Cuba, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela have been Russia's main arms traders in the region. In addition, Russia has had a specific interest in Latin America's energy sector with Russian firms heavily invested in the oil and gas sector in countries such as Venezuela, Mexico, and Bolivia.

In addition, Russia is becoming more popular in Latin America due to their supplies of Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine. At least 10 countries have received or are expecting the vaccine, and they are often accepted with media coverage and presence of political leaders. This way Russia is able to promote themselves not only as a country that trades arms and supports the same ideology, but also as someone who is “sending medicine that is necessary for surviving.”13

This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group, as part of the ‘Russian Strategic Interests in Latin America’ research project led by Alessia Cappelletti and Isabel Oriol.

For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Authors

Alessia Cappelletti is a Global Security Analyst and Program Manager of DEWIS. She has field experience in South America, Colombia especially, which makes her largely acquainted with the security challenges of the Latin American context. Her expertise includes conflict analysis and investigation, human rights protection, and criminality.

Anastasija Kuznecova is a student at the MA program in Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. She has field experience from Chile, Jamaica and the Balkans, and her interests include issues concerning social inequality, discrimination, and conflict escalation. With her combined practical experience and academic knowledge, Anastasija has a broad understanding of security, development, and human rights.

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