Papal Peace? Francis Visits Post-Civil War Colombia – Now A Political Minefield

Sep 4, 2017

The official song commissioned for Pope Francis’ visit to Colombia this week is called “Let’s Take the First Step.” It concludes with a paso the 80-year-old pontiff probably isn’t too familiar with: the hip-hop beat called reggaeton.

But the gritty rhythm is fitting. When the Roman Catholic pontiff steps off his plane in Bogotá on Wednesday for his five-day, four-city tour, he’ll walk into a country that just recently ended a 52-year-long civil war – a nation still so torn in half it might take, well, a papal miracle to unite it again.

“We’re a country that is completely divided,” says Colombia native Susana Vargas. “We hate each other. We always feel the other side is saying something that is wrong, and then you go on social media and it’s horrible what you see.”

Read more: Miami Colombians Divided Over Peace With a Guerrilla 'Mafia'

Vargas lives in Key Biscayne, but she still helps run her family’s orphanage in Bogotá, called Casa de la Madre y el Niño, or House of the Mother and Child. In fact, she’ll accompany children from Casa who will greet Francis when he arrives. She’s Catholic – as are more than 80 percent of Colombians – and like a lot of them she hopes the pope can help bring Colombia together after a conflict that killed more than 200,000 people.

FARC guerrillas arriving at a demobilization site in Colombia after signing a peace agreement with the government last year.
Credit Ricardo Mazalan / AP

“The pope said he would not go to Colombia until we solved that problem,” Vargas notes. “So maybe he can show our country we can’t treat each other like that. Maybe he can help us as Colombians forget about being liberal, conservative – and we just need to love each other and respect each other, you know?”

But Francis, an Argentine, is the first Latin American pope. Because of that, says Vargas, he “is seen more like a political figure in Latin America.”

I think that we would be depositing too many expectations to think the pope is actually going to be able to resolve more than 50 years of resentments and vendettas and death and destruction in Colombia. –Bruce Bagley

As a result, many Colombians believe Francis can energize not just their souls – but also their country’s official peace implementation process.

That won’t be easy. The peace process itself has created another layer of division in Colombia. The government and the Marxist guerrillas known as the FARC signed their peace agreement last fall. But since then Colombians have split bitterly between those who support the treaty and those who reject it as being too soft on the FARC, which became a political party last week.

President Juan Manuel Santos is the treaty’s biggest champion and he seems confident the pope supports it too. When Santos recently presented one of the pope-mobiles Francis will use in Colombia, he said he believes the pope’s visit will forge “reconciliation” on the issue.

Others aren’t so sure.

“If the pope goes to one side and not somewhere in the middle, he will be criticized,” says Fabio Andrade, a Colombia native who heads the nonprofit Americas Community Center in Weston.

“So, I’m a Catholic, and I prefer he doesn’t touch the issue.”

CHANGING HEARTS

Andrade’s business group aids Latino immigrants but also street children in Medellín, Colombia. Francis visits that city on Saturday (he’ll also go to Villavicencio and Cartagena) and Andrade plans to be there. But he thinks the pope knows that if he stirs Colombia’s political pot over the treaty, he risks compromising the peace process.

“The government has been saying he’s coming to put, like, a blessing on this peace process,” says Andrade, “and that’s not the case.”

The government denies it’s seeking the pope’s explicit blessing of the treaty. But Colombia analysts agree Francis faces a minefield if he inserts himself either way in the debate.

Susana Vargas at her Key Biscayne home showing a book about the orphanage her family runs in Bogota, Colombia.
Credit Tim Padgett / WLRN

“The country is so polarized – the pope is not going to be able to bridge that gulf,” says Bruce Bagley, an international relations professor at the University of Miami and an expert on Colomboa.

“There’s no question the pope will have a healing presence,” Bagley says. “But I think that we would be depositing too many expectations to think he is actually going to be able to resolve more than 50 years of resentments and vendettas and death and destruction in Colombia.”

So Colombians like Vargas, of the Casa orphanage, want Francis to focus instead on preaching compassion to one of the world’s most violent societies – one that also has some of the world’s worst economic inequality, which helped spark Colombia’s civil war in the first place.

“Sometimes we feel that peace is just signing a paper – that’s not peace,” says Vargas. “Peace is in not hating others. It would be great if he just lets people know that more than a treaty, peace is in our hearts.”

Most of the children who will greet the Pope with Vargas were orphaned one way or another by the conflict and ended up on Bogotá’s streets. Francis’ moment with them could be an effective first step toward changing Colombians’ hearts.