After three months of continuous demonstrations against President Iván Duque’s administration, Colombia does not seem to be any closer to a political solution for the widespread social unrest.
The Church had been mediating talks between the government and social movements. Although the negotiation with part of them was suspended, Catholic leaders are still trying to promote dialogue and conciliation. But it is a challenging task.
Father Hector Henao, the Bishops’ Conference’s social ministry secretary, explained that he had been in touch with the National Strike Committee, the umbrella-organization that has been coordinating most of the marches since April, but the talks have been interrupted.
“The Committee has been looking for alternative ways [to pursue its goals] and the conversations are frozen. But a negotiation has been activated with youth groups all over the country. They are a new relevant political agent in the Colombian society,” he told the Catholic Herald.
Henao, an experienced negotiator who in the past has mediated talks with several social movements and even with the left-wing guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its acronym FARC), argued that the protests will continue while the “popular demands are not addressed by the government.”
“There are numerous pending problems: extreme poverty, lack of opportunities, the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
Indeed, more than 40 percent of the Colombians live in poverty, according to the Colombian statistical agency. About 15 percent of the people are facing extreme poverty.
Many of Duque’s critics argue that the pandemic only intensified already existing problems. His attempt to introduce unpopular legislative changes, particularly a tax reform, was one of the main reasons for the beginning of the mass protests on April 28.
The violent repression of the manifestations aggravated the social dissatisfaction with Duque’s administration. The actions of the riot police resulted in at least 21 deaths, according to the government. Human rights organizations affirm the number can reach up to 70 dead. Hundreds were injured and illegally arrested and there have been denounces even of sexual abuse.
Both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International issued reports in July condemning the management of the protests by the Colombian police.
“The people, especially the teenagers and young adults, need answers,” Henao defined.
Carlos Enrique Angarita, a Theology professor at the Pontifical Xavierian University, affirmed that the negotiation was not possible because the government has “always avoided to really negotiate.”
“The government announced it would dialogue with the social movements, but it established its own rules to do so. There has not been a proper dialogue at any point,” he told the Catholic Herald.
The Church’s role as a mediator has always been fragile, Angarita declared. “From the government’s point of view, the Church has lost its social roots, given that other Christians churches have been growing in social importance,” he said.
From the popular movements’ perspective, the Church has lost its prestige long ago due to its traditional defense of the hegemonic political forces, Angarita reasoned.
“But now several bishops have manifested their support to the protesters, some of them with fierce words, particularly after the killing of young demonstrators by the police forces” he said.
One of the outspoken critics of the police actions has been the Archbishop of Cali Darío Monsalve. The city was the epicenter of the Colombian mass protests. On different occasions, Rev. Monsalve criticized the police violence and the militarization of Cali during the protests.
In Angarita’s opinion, Monsalve’s and other bishops’ stance against the repression of the demonstrators contributed to raise the Church’s reliability among part of the popular movements.
“It is an uncertain prospect, though. There is not enough cohesion among the social movements that have been protesting, so they do not have the necessary strength to force the government to negotiate with them,” he affirmed.
Fr. Henao emphasized that there are young Catholics involved in the protests, sometimes with local importance. That is the case of Daniel Caicedo and his group. A leader of the Young Catholic Workers, Caicedo has been following the events since the beginning of the marches.
“We have been listening to what the popular movements say and what their proposals are. Our movement has taken part in the social mobilization in different regions and tried to take concrete measures to help the people,” he told the Catholic Herald.
Caicedo said that the Church had played a fundamental role in “mediating the voices of the several social segments” involved in the manifestations. “The Church has always promoted dialogue. But the population is tired and does not want to compromise, given that the government’s promises had not been fulfilled,” he said.
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