Colombia’s government confirmed that a confidant of President Ivan Duque traveled to Cuba, but denied that the government had been talking with ELN guerrillas in secret.
Duque and his peace commissioner, Miguel Ceballos, are under international pressure for ending peace talks without allowing the return of ELN guerrillas to Colombia as agreed with guarantor countries.
The government has said it will not honor the agreement made ahead of the failed peace talks because the current administration never took part in them.
ELN chief negotiator Pablo Beltran told Caracol Radio on Sunday that it is true that Duque never sent government officials to Cuba to talk to the rebel leaders, “but friends of Ivan Duque have been in Cuba.”
Beltran refused to say which friends would have traveled to the island because “as journalists say, this falls under the confidentiality of sources.”
Public news broadcast Noticias Uno reported on Saturday that one of these “friends” was Everth Bustamante, a former M-19 guerrilla and former Senator for Duque’s hard-right Democratic Center party.
According to Noticias Uno, Bustamante traveled to Cuba on two occasions in November and December to hold secret talks with the guerrillas on behalf of the president, apparently bypassing the peace commissioner.
The former senator neither confirmed nor denied the claim, but said that he supported Duque and respected Ceballos, the only government official allowed to formally talk with the ELN.
The peace commissioner confirmed Bustamente had traveled to Cuba, but said in a statement that “any meeting or contact that Mr. Everth Bustamante might have had with members of the ELN could not and should not have referred to issues that fall within the constitutional and legal jurisdiction of the High Commissioner for Peace.”
According to Ceballos, he “did not grant any authorization to Mr. Bustamante, to act or speak with the ELN on behalf of the National Government, in matters related to possible peace dialogues.”
Following a terrorist attack by an alleged ELN guerrilla that killed 21 police cadets in Bogota earlier this month, Duque said he would not resume peace talks he had frozen when taking office in August last year.
The government has since gone out of its way to deny its obligation to allow ELN leaders to return to Cuba as agreed with the international community in the event of a rupture of the talks, arguing that Duque has never acknowledged the talks that began in 2017 under his predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos.