The Pope in Colombia:
A Trip Against the Crisis of Politics
Riccardo Cristiano 6 September 2017

The journey that Jorge Mario Bergoglio is beginning today goes well beyond Colombia’s borders. It is not a coincidence that the conflict between the Colombian Army and FARC was settled in Cuba and it was precisely on this regard that the Pope supposedly told President Obama, “If you wish to solve the problem between your country and Latin America, you must resolve the Cuban issue.”

This journey goes to the heart of the challenge posed by the third millennium, the symbol of which is the Colombian conflict, perhaps little known here but maybe the most relevant and global. There is no need to be aware that FARC has declared ownership of assets worth 9 billion pesos, not an enormous sum although in Colombia it is very significant, with some believing that it is an incomplete figure and above all does not take into account “capital abroad” that FARC denies it controls, but that is legitimately thought to exist considering that this conflict has involved the Cold War’s leading players as well as – if not above all – the protagonists of the new emergency, that of criminal organisations. It is thus that one begins to understand that the Pope’s journey to Colombia has been organised to help take the first step in the de-sequestration of politics, politics with a capital P as the Pope likes to say. The Colombian conflict has experienced a variety of very different stages; those of real conflict, of ideological conflict, sabotage, compromise and connections with drug trafficking.

As amateurs addressing the Colombian issue one can therefore observe how the ideological issue had always been linked to allegations of “terrorism”, which covered and denied the real issues paving the way for drug-trafficking and the forfeiture of Politics throughout the country. Negotiations or firmness? For half a century and since half a century ago, everything returns to this dramatic crossroads. The security policies followed by the state of “seguridad” exacerbated the violence with its desperate need to succeed as the “popular” choice and with no alternatives. By their very nature, opposite extremisms ended up increasingly legitimising the idea that only violence could solve the problems, strengthening the violent option on both sides. This has happened in many other countries, but rarely has “the ideology” ended up becoming the medium for criminal organisations and mafias as happened in Colombia.

The history of this conflict can be interpreted as a destructive spiral that made the struggle between the two camps the power capable of negating its original raison d’etre. Revisiting its history will be helpful for understanding how politics has been forfeited in Colombia, how narco-traffickers became increasingly powerful and how the global bipolarism between the American and Soviet empires made the search for a third way increasingly difficult. And Colombians have vanished, and with them the indigenous population, the blacks, the peasants and the forgotten people of the great suburbs… No more demands for rights, for social justice, development, no more debates concerning economic policies, investment plans, working hours, privatisation or the state’s role. The victims have become infinite, victims of increasingly ferocious violence that has fuelled a thirst for justice with no reconciliation.

Did this all really start on May 27th, 1964, when a handful of armed peasants led by Manuel Marulanda Vélez defended, firing a few shots, the small Marquetalia from 16,000 soldiers belonging to the national army? Was that really when the FARC came into being? It is far more probable that it all began when Fidel Castro conquered Cuba and the White House drafted a plan for opposing Castroism and communism throughout Latin America. Chile, Argentina and Nicaragua would soon get a taste of this cruelty, but Colombia was the ideal location for testing these plans. This because at Marquetalia a few communist peasants were pursuing a revolutionary project that could have become the bridgehead for Castroism in South America. The Colombian government, having overcome the coup d’état mentality of the Fifties with an amnesty, was unconcerned about that project seeing that its power was strong in the large urban centres. The events of May 27th therefore resulted in a great transformation. That small self-defence group became the embryo for FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and for the Che Guevara-inspired project, capable of spreading over large parts of the country. Years of violent clashes followed, until President Belisario Betancourt reached a peace agreement, perhaps symbolically signed on May 28th, this time in 1984.

The Uribe Agreement resulted in the emergence of two new political parties, the Patriotic Union and the Communist Party. But many of their representatives were very soon eliminated by the ferociousness of paramilitary groups that opposed the ceasefire and the peace process, with a return of FARC representatives to the political battlefield and the 1986 elections were won by those opposing the agreement. It was thus that new scenarios emerged, military ones obviously, which in 1990 resulted in Operation Centaurus, the outcome of which was the assassination of the FARC’s leader. Negotiations, however, did not die with him. In 1997 FARC returned to negotiate with the “new Betancourt”, the newly elected President Pastrana who had won the elections running on a peace negotiation platform. The bases for these negotiations were the demilitarisation of five municipalities and the disbanding of paramilitary groups, those militias that involved many landowners, drug traffickers and army officers. Negotiations officially began on January 9th, 1999, but the paramilitary groups succeeded in sabotaging them by killing, in just a few hours, in various towns in the country over 200 civilians, guilty of supporting FARC. How could negotiations be saved?  FARC handed over to Pastrana the names of politicians, officers, drug traffickers, entrepreneurs and landowners who, in their opinion, supported the “deaths squads”. But the president was soon obliged to stop everything and what once again halted negotiations was yet another ferocious and obscure crime. A number of armed men broke into the home of an important land owner, Elvira Cortès, demanding the payment of a vast amount of money, “a tax to finance the people’s movement.” Faced with her refusal, they packed her with explosives and then blew her up. Was this ferocious act of sabotage the work of an “intransigent” branch of the guerrillas or that of saboteurs linked to paramilitary militias? Peace was destroyed with her. There was more, however, that made it difficult to respect the agreement, such as the American idea of destroying all the cocaine plantations by spraying them with herbicides, while just like today’s agreement, the old one envisaged the manual eradication of all illegal plantations. And so one comes to the third millennium, the one that has experienced the arrival of FARC’s real urban terrorism, which made its debut with the horrific dynamite attack in Carmen de Bolivar.

Bergoglio will land with a programmatic manifesto. His journey is in fact based on the motto “let us take the first step.” We should take that step, not delegate it to others. Pope Francis will prove the power of this choice by beatifying the first bishop of the Indios, Jesús Emilio Jaramillo Monsalve, assassinated with four bullets to the head one night in October 1989, when he was kidnapped by the ELN’s “communist fighters” (a crime for which the ELN’s leader, Pablo Beltran, currently negotiating a peace agreement with the government, has belatedly asked for forgiveness). This does not mean abolishing the insane ideology, but rather acknowledging that all ideologies have failed, giving in to hatred, to violence and to sabotaging peace, as in the days of the agreement attempted by President Betancourt. These were in any case clear-cut forms of sabotage, because only by eternalising the conflict could every “establishment” eternalise itself, obliging its own international camp to follow it. It was thus that politics vanished and a system aimed only to guarantee immense wealth to the advantage of new powers was born. This is the historic challenge of this millennium in which terrorist organisations increasingly often enter pacts with organised crime creating cartels that escape our understanding and dominate us.

Colombia was very different when Paul VI arrived there in 1968; Bogota still seemed an almost happy island among Latin American countries already bowed by totalitarian regimes. The violence of the Fifties was gone. Few doubted that they had embarked on a path that sooner or later would have led to development, supported by the government of President Carlos Lleras Restrepo and his industrialisation programme. The best proof of this came precisely from the speech that Restrepo made to the Pope when he arrived in Colombia, “A climate of political peace reigns among those who previously bitterly fought one another, and it is in this context that we are trying to set up the framework of an egalitarian society, confident that the evangelical spirit, more effective than fear and more constructive than sentiments of rebellion, will make this work of justice easier, that it will overcome selfishness, placate anger, leading us in the end to new levels of morality and wellbeing.” Sentiments of rebellion… things went differently.

John Paul II, who visited the country in the crucial year of 1986, seized on one fundamental point; “In my encyclical entitled Dives in Misericordia (no. 77) I wished to emphasise the fact that the world is experiencing moral unease, which is increasing in relation to humankind and its destiny […]. This moral malaise is fuelled by the phenomena of violence, unemployment, alienation and other elements that cause imbalance, threatening peaceful human coexistence. When dispassionately observing the panorama of your country, are you too not under the clear impression that this moral malaise is present in your society?”

It is interesting that the first journey to just one country in South America undertaken by the first Latin American pope should be to Colombia. It is also interesting that the first journey embarked on by the Pope, who has ordered a study of the possible excommunication of people who are corrupt or members of the mafia, should be to Colombia just after this announcement. It is also interesting that among those opposed to the compromise required by peace there is the anti-Second Vatican Council lawyer José Galat, who misses Mass in Latin and is linked to former president Uribe. What does Mass said in Latin have to do with all this? Well it does, because it represents a Church in which the officiant leads “God’s peoples”, he does not celebrate with them. They do not see Him, He alone knows the path, he alone knows there are no “compromises” to be reached. It is a “Spanish” Church that has nothing to learn from others as it already knows everything. It is a Church that has no peace agreements to be entered into but “justice to be imposed”. It is a Church that does not care about Cartagena de Indias, where many still remember the times of slavery accepted by that “Christian society” that refused to enter churches in which the Jesuit Claver, whose canonisation had to wait until the 19th century, gathered together his “negroes” whom he baptised in spite of the fact that they were accused of “barely having a soul”.

Bergoglio knows well how important Colombia is for the Bolivarian dream, but he also knows the important role Colombia plays in the forfeiture of politics with a capital P in the Latin American continent and there is more. Hence this journey assumes the characteristics of a journey into the folds and scourges of our times; the demonization of others, the inability to address national and regional problems deriving mainly from the crisis experienced by politics, by the forfeiting of politics that can but favour on the one hand the expansion of secret and criminal powers as well as corruption, and on the other, the illusion that there are radical, total solutions capable of eliminating all evil forever. This journey will have a great deal to say to this third millennium, a great deal more than people expects.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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