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Pope Francis in Colombia But the Issue is Venezuela. He has Helped Neither.

Pope Francis will arrive in Bogota on Sept. 6 and return to Rome on Sept. 10. Except for the Prayer Meeting for National Reconciliation commemorating the end of Colombia’s 52-year civil war, the pope’s scheduled itinerary was pretty ordinary:  meetings with government and Church officials; with priests and seminarians; a couple of public Masses and a visit to a Catholic charity.

However, on Aug. 24, a Colombian bishop announced that Pope Francis will also meet with members of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference. “It is important…to review the situation of the Venezuelan people,” Bishop Rigoberto Corredor said.

Venezuelans have been suffering through years of severe food and medical shortages, extreme inflation, daily protests. A UN report dated Aug. 30 said “Venezuelan security forces and pro-government groups are believed to be responsible for the deaths of 73 people since April … More than 1,000 people were believed to remain in custody as of July 31, among more than 5,000 detained in street protests since April. Detainees are often subjected to ill-treatment, in some documented cases amounting to torture.”

When the Venezuelan bishops had asked for a meeting with Pope Francis in Rome on June 8, their spokesman told journalists, “The pope has the moral strength to speak to governments and peoples, and we trust that there is an international mission, a help … the Holy See can do much to make light of our situation.”

But up until now, the first pope from Latin America has refused to become personally engaged in peace negotiations or to condemn Pres. Nicolas Maduro.

Pope Francis and Venezuela

On Dec. 6, 2015, opponents of Maduro won a majority of seats in Venezuela’s National Assembly. After their win, “the opposition invited Pope Francis to lead negotiations with Maduro to end the political stand-off.” They wanted Maduro to “agree to a timetable for elections, guarantee the constitutional authority of the National Assembly and the release political prisoners … The country is facing food shortages, skyrocketing inflation, rising crime, and increasing authoritarianism under Maduro,” reported the Crux website.

In May 2016, opposition and government officials met with former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and former presidents Martin Torrijos of Panama and Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic who agreed to act as mediators in future talks. Later, the same three former leaders acted as mediators during a week of dialogue in Caracas in September under the auspices of UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations).

“Tensions in the country increased after electoral authorities in the country suspended a referendum Oct. 20 that sought to remove Maduro,” reported Junno Arocho Esteves.

Returning from a state visit to the Middle East, Maduro made an unannounced stop at the Vatican on Oct. 24 to meet with Pope Francis. The Vatican said the pope “desired to continue to offer his contribution” to resolving the crisis.

“Amid noisy calls for Maduro to be impeached, the government and leaders of the opposition have agreed to participate in conciliatory talks,” per CNN. It was announced on Oct. 25 that the Vatican would mediate the talks “at the request of the opposition.” Pope Francis appointed the Swiss Vatican ambassador to Argentina, Archbishop Emir Paul Tscherrig, as mediator.

On Dec. 1, “Veppex, a group for Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile, sent a letter to Pope Francis urging him to abandon the talks because they’re only ‘strengthening the prevailing dictatorship’ governing the country. They also called the dialogue a ‘farce’ which maintains a regime that ‘oppresses a people that dies of hunger,’” Ines San Martin noted.

The day before the talks were scheduled to begin on Dec. 6, “the wives of several jailed Venezuelan opposition leaders chained themselves to the front of St. Peter’s Square, asking Pope Francis to remove his delegation from the talks unless political prisoners were free,” according to the Crux website.

The next morning, the opposition refused to attend the talks when the government made no move to release the prisoners and made no effort at compromise.

UNASUR’s mediators and a new papal envoy, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, “managed to move the meeting to January 13 to continue the national dialogue initiated with the mediation of UNASUR,” Luis Badilla and Francesco Gagliano wrote.

“The government was happy for the Vatican role for it believed that it gave them added legitimacy. The opposition trusted [the Venezuelan bishops] because of their longstanding criticism of Chavismo,” explained Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, editor-in-chief of a Canadian online journal.

The talks never resumed.

In January, Pope Francis suggested that both sides meet in the Vatican. “Members of the opposition said they hadn’t ruled it out.” But “soon after, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, of Caracas, said the possibility is no longer on the table because the Church believes the conditions needed for an eventual dialogue are not yet guaranteed,” per Ines San Martin

The Vatican ambassador to Caracas, Archbishop Aldo Giordano, said that Pope Francis “is ready to hold a personal meeting with the parties, but only when ‘the time is right,’ as decided by all parties,” Crux reported.

“With the greatest respect and affection towards Pope Francis and [papal envoy] Archbishop Celli, Where is the pope?” asked Henrique Capriles on March 8. Capriles had narrowly lost the presidential election to Maduro in 2013. “Capriles said that the Vatican ‘seems distant’ to the hardship being faced by ordinary Venezuelans and that Venezuela must be a priority for the pope.” Crux added, “The Vatican still has not officially ended its role as mediator, which has prevented other international actors from filling the void.”

Five days later, Crux reported that “increasing attacks on the Catholic Church in Venezuela show signs of a deterioration of relations between the government and the Vatican.” The process for dialogue had “collapsed, with each side blaming the other for its failure and the Vatican also receiving part of the blame.”

Fr. de Souza wrote: “On the [April 29] return flight from Cairo, the Holy Father was asked about Venezuela and appeared to depart from his neutrality – against the opposition.” The pope said “Part of the opposition does not want this [dialogue]. Interesting, the opposition itself is divided and, on the other hand, it seems that the conflicts are increasingly escalating … Everything that can be done for Venezuela must be done.  And with the necessary guarantees.” De Souza continued, “What that answer meant was unclear, except that the pope appeared to be blaming the opposition. It did not take long for that response to be heard in Venezuela and the dismay to be heard in Rome.”

On April 30, Pope Francis made “a heartfelt appeal to the government and all components of Venezuelan society to avoid any more forms of violence, to respect human rights and to seek a negotiated solution.”

De Souza wrote:

The Maduro regime, having lost the delaying tactic of mediation, proposed instead a constitutional convention to draft a new constitution for Venezuela.

[E]arlier this year, Maduro had his allies on the Supreme Court strip the National Assembly of its powers, until an international protest forced a reversal.

The opposition has rejected the constitutional reform tactic, as have the Catholic bishops. On Saturday, Maduro denounced the bishops for taking a harder line against him than Pope Francis. He publicly called for the Venezuelan bishops to agree to his proposals in obedience to Pope Francis.

Vatican diplomacy has now stumbled into a place where Maduro considers Pope Francis an ally against the bishops of Venezuela.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, senses that matters have reached a dangerous point. wrote de Souza.

“I believe that elections are the solution,” Parolin said on May 13.

“Given that over 80 percent of Venezuelans polled want a new government, calling for elections is tantamount to calling for Maduro to go. It remains for Francis to align himself with his own bishops and make that call himself, mobilizing international opinion, especially in Latin America,” declared de Souza.

Unusual because normally it is the pope who summons bishops to the Vatican, the bishops of Venezuela asked Pope Francis for a meeting on June 8. Acting as spokesman for the group, Archbishop Diego Padron, president of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference, told journalists, “We came to defend our people…The pope has the moral strength to speak to governments and peoples, and we trust that there is an international mission, a help … the Holy See can do much to make light of our situation.”

During the meeting the bishops handed the pope a report on the deaths caused by the repression of the protests in the streets. Padron said the pope is “very moved to have information on how the people are suffering, and said the bishops can count on his support,” reported Vatican expert, Andrea Gagliarducci.

Since then, on two Sundays in July during the traditional noonday address, Pope Francis mentioned his prayers for Venezuela. “I call for an end to violence and a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis,” the pope said on July 2.  Two weeks later, he prayed for this “beloved country.”

On Aug. 4, the Vatican issued a statement calling for the suspension of Venezuela’s new constituent assembly which “foments a climate of tension and confrontation and puts the future at stake …. At the same time, the Holy See asks that all political actors, and in particular the government, guarantee full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as for the existing Constitution …. The Holy Father, directly and via the Secretariat of State, is closely following the situation and its humanitarian, social, political, economic, and also spiritual implications, and assures his constant prayer for the country and all Venezuelans, while inviting faithful all over the world to pray intensely for this purpose.”

In contrast, “The United States, the European Union and many neighboring countries in Latin America have assailed Maduro for his political tactics, human rights violations and economic mismanagement of the once wealthy country with the world’s largest oil reserves .… Maduro’s government still stands only because of support from the military. The military has been key to quell months of anti-government protests that have led to more than 100 deaths. Troops often use tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators. Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino said force is necessary to maintain order,” USA Today reported on Aug. 23.

Dario Ramirez, a Venezuelan political exile, was introduced to Pope Francis on Aug. 28 as part of a delegation of politicians from around the world. “I explained the situation in Venezuela and the situation facing political prisoners. The Holy Father said he was praying a lot about it and doing all that he could to help,” Ramirez said.

Another political exile, Angel Bastidas, speaking from a homeless shelter in Bogota, “blames Francis for giving the government political oxygen and hopes he’ll take advantage of his trip to Colombia to send a clear message that he’s with the Venezuelan people against Maduro. ‘Here are the consequences of a dialogue that should’ve never taken place,’ said Bastidas. ‘Thousands of Venezuelans fleeing from their country.’”

Pope Francis and Colombia

It took almost twenty years of on-again off-again and extremely difficult peace talks before the Colombian government reached a peace agreement with FARC (the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in September 2016. About 260,000 people had been killed and millions displaced in the 52-year civil war.

In April 2015, Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga, president of the Colombian Bishops Conference, said that he hoped Pope Francis would visit in early 2016. “Given that practically all of the politically conservative figures and groups in the nation that oppose the peace talks are devout Catholics, Pope Francis’ visit could sway them to change their minds,” added Castro Quiroga.

Colombian Pres. Juan Manuel Santos met with Pope Francis in June 2015. The pope assured Santos “he was available to help in the peace process in Colombia.” “The Holy Father told me: ‘If you need us to play a role, we are ready to do so,’” the president said.

The following month, Pope Francis was asked: “Seeing how well the mediation went between Cuba and the U.S., do you think it would it be possible to do something similar between other delicate situations in other countries on the Latin American continent? I’m thinking of Venezuela and Colombia.” The pope responded by admitting that, as far as his involvement was concerned, “The process between Cuba and the U.S. was not mediation …. It happened by itself. It was the goodwill of the two countries, and the merit is theirs, the merit is theirs for doing this. We did hardly anything, only small things.” As regards the Colombian peace process, “we are always willing to help in many ways,” the pope declared.

However, when representatives of FARC asked to meet Pope Francis during his scheduled trip to Cuba in September 2015, the Vatican declined.

Castro Quiroga announced in January 2016 that Pope Francis would be visiting Colombia in the first or second trimester of 2017. The archbishop explained that the pope “will not condition his visit to the peace process because he will be with the Colombians with or without a peace process.”

FARC Commander-in-Chief Timoleon Jimenez “published an open letter to Pope Francis calling for assistance in the on-going peace process” in April 2016. There was no response from the Vatican or the pope.

In September 2016, Santos said “Pope Francis will visit his country in the first quarter of next year. The pope promised in February to visit Colombia if the country’s government and rebels signed a peace treaty …. The treaty was signed on Monday, though it still must be ratified by voters.”

Pope Francis corrected Santos on Oct. 2: “I have said that when the peace process succeeds, I would like to go, when everything is ‘airtight.’ In other words, when everything – if the referendum is successful – when everything is safe, that there will be no going back and the international community, all the nations, are in agreement, that there will be no appeal, when everything is over… In this case, I could go. But if things are unstable … It all depends on what the people say.”

The peace treaty was narrowly rejected by voters on Oct. 5. This was generally attributed to over-confidence in the turnout for the YES vote which kept some from the polls, and opposition to “a transitional justice system that would have allowed rebel fighters who cooperated to avoid jail time and a concession of political power to FARC,” wrote Ana Campoy.

However, a number of commentators attributed part of the NO vote in a country which is 79% Catholic  to the treaty stating that “people with diverse sexual identity  have equal opportunity access to the benefits of living in a country without an armed conflict.”

Pope Francis has consistently preached against “gender theory” or “gender ideology” – that is, full human rights should be allowed to transgender persons – in his encyclical on the environment, his apostolic exhortation on “The Joy of Love” and many addresses around the world.

Two months before the referendum on the peace treaty, Pope Francis again condemned “gender ideology.” “Today children – children! – are taught in school that everyone can choose his or her sex …. God created man and woman; God created the world in a certain way …. This is the age of sin against God the Creator.”

Former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, the “fiercest opponent” of the peace accords, led a “right-wing, fear-based campaign portraying the peace accord as threatening family values because it recognized the rights of gays and lesbians,” noted Linda Cooper and James Hodge. Sounding much like Pope Francis, Uribe declared, “Saying that one is not born female or male, but that this is defined by society, is an abuse of minors, a disrespect of nature and of the family.”

As Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga had predicted: “Practically all of the politically conservative figures and groups in the nation that oppose the peace talks are devout Catholics.”

  • “The ‘no’ campaign…mustered consensus among parishes and Catholic organizations and movements,” reported La Stampa.
  • “A crucial element of the propaganda [for the NO campaign] was the myth that the peace deal would have implied the imposition of a ‘gender ideology’ that could have shattered the traditional heterosexual family unit,” according to Leonardo Goi.
  • “Conservative Catholics were convinced the accord was a threat to traditional family values as it recognized the rights of gays, lesbians and transgender people,” noted Eduardo Pizarro Leongomez and Victor Manuel Moncayo Cruz
  • “Pope Francis’ blistering attackson ‘gender theory’… is emboldening Catholic bishops in Colombia,” noted Ines San Martin. Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez declared that “Gender ideology … destroys the human being, taking away its fundamental principle of the complementary relationship between man and woman.”

The treaty was revised. A new agreement was presented on Nov. 12 with modifications to more than 50 points. “It was read by diplomats from Cuba and Norway, the mediating countries, in the Cuban capital, Havana,” reported the BBC. 

Santos was scheduled to meet with Pope Francis on Dec. 16 as part of his European tour after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “At the last minute,” the Vatican also invited Uribe. “It was during Uribe’s presidency (2002 to 2010) that the military conducted its six-year campaign to boost body counts by murdering civilians and claiming they were guerrillas … The killers were rewarded with bonuses up to $1,000 per body according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report that called the routine ‘false positive’ executions of civilians by army brigades under pressure from superiors ‘one of the worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent decades,’” per Cooper and Hodge.

“Uribe flew overnight from Bogota and met privately with Francis in an unannounced audience.” Then Santos “joined up together in Francis’s private study for the three-way huddle….But after the 25-minute meeting, neither President Juan Manuel Santos nor his right-wing predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, showed any sign of putting aside their differences,” according to the AP.

Since then, getting opposing sides together has been a difficult process. Recently, “key legislation” for government compliance with the peace process “is stuck in Congress,” and “Both Colombia’s prosecutor general and the demobilized guerrilla group FARC have lied about guerrilla assets meant to repair conflict victims,” as noted by Colombia Reports.

However, “Despite the many challenges in Colombia, the FARC’s transition from rebel group to political party ahead of the 2018 elections is a positive step in this peace process. With the United Nations and other outside actors set to engage around the elections, the country may be on the path toward peace,” wrote Aila M. Matanock, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

The “Peace Pope”

Pope Francis will arrive in Colombia under the banner “Let’s take the first step.” It will be “a moment in our history” of “grace and joy” to “to begin to build and dream” of “reconciliation” and “of transforming our country,” according to the bishop in charge of arrangements for the pope’s visit.

The “first step” AFTER more than twenty years of grueling work by genuine peacemakers willing to risk their popularity and reputations if their efforts failed.

Pope Francis will leave Colombia as unaffected by his visit as the 26 other countries he has visited, but probably with his status as peacemaker further expanded by the media, such as these previous headlines for example:

The ‘Peace Pope

Pope Francis brings message of peace to Central African Republic

Pope Francis goes to Egypt as a “messenger of peace

Pope Francis: a pilgrim of peace and hope in Fatima

The Vatican has already announced the mottos for Pope Francis’ future trips:

Bangledesh – “Harmony and Peace”

Myanmar – “Love and Peace

Peru – “United by Hope

Chile – “I Give You My Peace

Oddly, the Vatican calls each papal trip an “apostolic journey.” What Jesus commanded his apostles to do was “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”

(Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America.)


6 Responses

  1. Francis is confused wearing two hats, political and religious. He evidently doesn’t know which one he has on at a given time.
    Clearly, BC makes a case why the papacy should eschew altogether any semblance of a political state. As long as it maintains this duality, it undermines any moral leadership it believes it has despite the worldwide child sexual abuse scandals. Francis has to make up his split mind. I doubt he will resolve this dualism. Loses on both counts.

  2. A great summation and explication of the problem!

  3. Betty, You really should write a book about Francis!

    • Thanks, Jack. I’m too old and no longer have
      the stamina to another book.

      • The Betty Clermont Chronicles would be an appropiate title……

        • Thank you, Lynne.

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