In April, massive demonstrations exploded in Cali and in several Colombian cities. A combination of rising poverty, political dissatisfaction, and the Covid-19 pandemic led many people, especially the youth, to demand President Iván Duque’s impeachment.
After a few months, the mobilization lost momentum, even though a political solution has never emerged. But now many hope that the protests will influence the 2022 elections.
The Church played a central role throughout the process and mediated talks between the government and social movements. Catholic leaders are still promoting dialogue and conciliation, particularly on a local level.
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 coordinated most of the marches, and keeps dialoguing 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 government failed to address most of the popular demands.
“There are numerous pending problems,” 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 difficulties. His attempt to introduce unpopular legislative changes, particularly a tax reform, was one of the main reasons for the beginning of the mass protests.
The violent repression of the manifestations aggravated the social dissatisfaction with Duque’s administration. The actions of the riot police resulted in at least 29 deaths, according to the government. Human rights organizations affirm the number can reach up to 84 dead. Hundreds were injured and illegally arrested and there have been denouncements 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.
Carlos Enrique Angarita, a Theology professor at the Pontifical Xavierian University, affirmed that the negotiation was not possible because the government “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 Christian 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 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 was 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.
Young Catholics also took part in the mobilization. That is the case of Daniel Caicedo, a leader of the Young Catholic Workers in Cali.
“Our movement joined 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 played a fundamental role in “mediating the voices of the several social segments” involved in the manifestations. “The Church always promoted dialogue,” he said.
After a few months with continuous marches, in July most of the movement had already declined. Theologian Heyner Hernández, who co-signed a letter in April with lay Catholics calling for dialogue and denouncing violence during the protests, argued that “the permanent economic crisis, the pandemic, and the perception that the corrupt system will hardly change” weakened the mobilization.
“Most of the popular energy is now concentrated on the upcoming elections for President and members of the Congress,” he told the Catholic Herald.
A very active pre-campaign has already begun particularly in social media, and many Colombians have been engaging in fierce virtual debates. The elections are scheduled to take place on May 29.
Many of the people who took part in the demonstrations are already expressing their criticism on the pre-candidates of the right-wing Centro Democrático (democratic center), Duque’s and former President Álvaro Uribe’s party.
In the political left, the environmental activist Francia Márquez, a Black woman and human rights advocate, and Senator Gustavo Petro, one of the leading members of the opposition to Duque, have emerged as strong competitors.
But the number of pre-candidates is still immense at this point, and the final runners shall only be defined within the next months.
“Anyway, a rather relevant result of the demonstrations is that now people understand the need to vote not only for their presidential candidate, but also for legislators in tune with their vision for the country,” Hernández analyzed.
The manifestations also had another important outcome, which was the defeat of Duque’s planned reforms, he added.
For the Church members who have been engaged in finding negotiated political solutions for the crisis, the work continues, affirmed Fr. Henao.
“We are still promoting dialogue between different sociopolitical agents, especially on the local level,” he said.
Between October 5 and 10, the Church led a humanitarian mission to the Chocó Department, one of the epicenters of poverty, famine, and social vulnerability in Colombia.
Bishop of Quibdó Juan Carlos Barreto invited international ambassadors, members of non-governmental organizations, United Nations’ delegates, and government officials to visit indigenous and African Colombian villages and try to find ways of helping them after decades of abandonment.
“There is a serious humanitarian crisis in the region, which has been the stage of the worst massacre during the armed conflict in Colombia two decades ago,” Henao explained.
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