Pope Francis departs for Colombia next week, a papal pilgrimage aimed at fostering reconciliation after the peace agreement of 2016 that ended Colombia’s decades-long civil war. While that remains the primary purpose, the trip will also give the Pope a chance to speak on two of his most important themes: migration and poverty.
The trip to Latin America takes the Holy Father to the border of Venezuela, where the petro-communist regime of the late Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro is murdering its political opponents, tearing up the constitution, devaluing the currency, vaporising savings, unleashing hyperinflation and reducing an oil-rich country to a level of poverty so dire that people are starving to death. In the name of defending “Chavismo” socialist ideology, Maduro refuses to let foreign relief supplies into the country, meaning that poor Venezuelans are also dying due to lack of basic medicines. Unsurprisingly, Venezuela is now producing refugees seeking to cross the border into Colombia.
Just as Pope Francis used his visit to Mexico to influence immigration politics across the border in the United States, it would be impossible for the first Latin American pope to ignore the crisis across the border in Venezuela.
What will Pope Francis say?
Might the self-proposed quadrilateral of the Holy Father’s thought – time is greater than space, the whole is greater than the part, unity prevails over conflict, reality is more important than ideas – be applied?
Pope Francis employed the quadrilateral to frame his message to the G20 earlier this summer in Hamburg. In that message he warned listeners against the failed ideologies of the 20th century being replaced with new ideologies of “market autonomy and financial speculation”.
The problem in Latin America has never been market autonomy; on the contrary, regimes of Left and Right have discovered creative ways for the state to undermine the economy, bungle the currency and bankrupt the nation.
The sacrifice of reality to ideology is nowhere in the world more evident today than in Venezuela, save for North Korea.
The defence of the poor has been a hallmark of Francis’s papacy. Will the denunciation of regimes that impoverish their people be full-throated, or muted, in Colombia? Pope Francis has shown himself willing – perhaps even eager – to denounce markets when they fail to produce justice. In Latin America he will be able to do the same when it is the state that is directing “an economy that kills”.
Another major priority of Pope Francis is migration; it might be said that open migration is the lynchpin of his social teaching. On August 21, the papal message for the World Day of Migrants was released, with the Holy Father enumerating a very specific set of rights and benefits that ought to be extended to migrants and refugees, including welfare and pension benefits, the latter of which ought to be portable should the migrants return to their home country.
Colombia will give the Holy Father an opportunity to spell out what this looks like in practice. Maduro’s regime has produced an outflow of refugees, some of whom are travelling without papers as the Venezuelan state no longer has the capacity to print passports. Should the depredations of Maduro impose an obligation on Colombia to receive and pay for social assistance for migrants?
On his return flight from Sweden last year, Pope Francis said that the capacity to integrate migrants had to be taken into account by receiving countries. It was a slight departure from his general open migration policy, but noteworthy.
More recently, Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the dicastery for promoting integral human development, said that it was not enough to encourage European countries to receive African migrants; it was necessary to “turn off the faucet” at the source by dealing with the problems in the source countries which are producing refugees. Again, it was a departure from the dominant line. But it will be of interest in Colombia. At the moment the number of Venezuelan refugees has been manageable, but what if it becomes tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands? The situation is so precarious in Venezuela that those numbers are possible if matters continue to deteriorate.
The Holy Father will face a delicate balancing act in Colombia. On a mission of reconciliation, he will be loathe to condemn the communist ideology that animated the FARC rebels in Colombia, but it is that same ideology that is pauperising Venezuela. In the latter, the problem is not that communists are the rebels but that they are the government, meaning that reconciliation cannot be a goal. Rather, the aim must be a change of regime.
The Pope is visiting Colombia, but the Venezuelans next door will be watching too.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the September 1 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here