Pope Francis visits Colombia as peace deal continues to polarise

Pontiff arrives to give momentum to process still facing tough challenges

The memory of the land mine that tore off the leg of Helena González’s nephew years ago is still fresh. González (25), has spent much of her life fearing more attacks by Colombia’s Marxist rebels against her family. And last year, when given the chance to vote on a peace agreement to end a half-century of conflict, she joined the majority of Colombians in voting against the deal.

"The pope may forgive them," González said, coming out of church in the capital, Bogotá, this week. "But in my heart I don't forgive them. I am still reconciling it all." As Pope Francis arrived in Colombia on Wednesday for a six-day visit, the challenge before the leader of the Roman Catholic Church was clear: nudging the country, torn apart by 52 years of war, toward a peace with former guerrillas that remains controversial in the eyes of many of the war's victims.

"It's dangerous ground for Pope Francis," said Hosffman Ospino, a Colombian theologian at Boston College. "Half of the country disagrees with the peace process."

On the surface, much has gone well for the peace accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their acronym, Farc. After failing in the referendum, the government reworked the deal and passed it through Congress, sidestepping voters. About 7,000 rebels left the jungle, gave up weapons and are returning to civilian life.


But for González and thousands of others, the conflict left lasting scars. An estimated 220,000 people were killed as rebels battled government and paramilitary groups from isolated mountains to city streets. At least six million people were displaced by the conflict.

Public opinion has edged up – slightly – in favour of the deal signed by President Juan Manuel Santos. But the country is still as divided as ever at a time when rebels are meant to be starting new lives among civilians. "One of the challenges to understand the dynamic here is the polarisation the conflict left behind," Ospino said.

Francis's visit to Colombia is the first papal trip to the country since 1986, when the war was still raging and much of the country was off-limits to Pope John Paul II. This time, Francis has more freedom to travel the country and meet his flock, celebrating Mass in Bogotá on Thursday, beatifying clerics killed in the war on Friday in the city of Villavicencio, and on Saturday and Sunday visiting Medellín and Cartagena, both of which have staged remarkable turnarounds in recent years.

“‘Let us take the first step’ is the theme of this journey,” Francis said in a video message to Colombians on Monday. “Peace is what Colombia has sought for a long time, and it is working to achieve it.”

Frustrated diplomacy

For Francis, the trip is a rare victory in what has been a frustrated run of diplomacy by the Vatican in the region. The pontiff was an important player in starting secret negotiations between the United States and Cuba that initially led to the end of another cold war-era conflict when the two countries agreed to restart diplomatic relations in 2014.

This year, however, President Donald Trump reversed parts of the reconciliation, and Washington expelled Cuban diplomats after a possible covert attack on diplomatic staff in Havana.

The Vatican has also tried to leverage its moral authority in Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro has engaged in repression of protesters that has left at least 120 people dead. The church tried to mediate negotiations between opposition politicians and the government, but Maduro has widened his crackdown and now runs what many call a dictatorship.

"He's not a miracle worker," Thomas J Reese, a Jesuit priest in Washington and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said of Francis. "There has to be some desire on the part of politicians to come off of the cliff."

For a time, it appeared that a peace agreement in Colombia might be tilting toward a similar failure. Last October, after four years of negotiations with the Farc, Santos scheduled an up-or-down vote for Colombians on the deal. Although the president had seen it as little more than a popular rubber stamp, the referendum instead galvanised widespread feelings that the rebels had gotten off too easily.

Among the loudest campaigners were Christian Evangelist churches that joined allies of Álvaro Uribe, Santos's predecessor, and argued that the deal betrayed religious values. When the deal was rejected, Vatican diplomats urged the Colombians to save it. After the new deal was signed, Francis called Santos and Uribe to the Vatican to hash out their differences, but the two men left with little agreement.

Uribe continued to air his grievances this week before the pope’s visit, issuing a public letter to Francis. “We’ve never been against peace,” the former president wrote. “Nevertheless total impunity for those responsible for atrocities,” the letter said, will “simply stimulate more crimes”.

ELN ceasefire

In the days before Francis's visit, though, the push for peace in Colombia has gained momentum. On Monday, the National Liberation Army – the country's second-largest rebel group, which is also negotiating a peace deal with the government – agreed to a three-month ceasefire.

And on Friday, the Farc said that it would form a new political party, announcing its leadership and a new logo, a rose. Analysts saw the move as fulfilling the group's promise that it had abandoned armed struggle for good and would now vie for votes in Colombia's democracy, following past guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Yet many Colombians feel that the party's new name, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, whose acronym is also Farc, shows that the former rebels remain unrepentant. "For me, the Farc aren't honest and the votes they'll get will be through coercion," said Alfonso Téllez (52), a Catholic who fled to Bogotá from the southern city of Cali after his grandfather was killed by armed men.

Some analysts say the government’s implementation of the peace agreement – not popular opinion – could present the greatest challenges this year.

Adam Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organisation, said that while the rebels had fulfilled their agreements to lay down arms and enter politics, the government had come up short on many of its promises, including providing social programmes for former rebels and running water in the areas they had withdrawn from.

Programmes like crop substitution for coca farmers remain in their infancy, Isacson said, and a transitional justice programme, set to create alternative tribunals for crimes committed during the conflict, could be delayed as long as May. “They’re simply going too slow on too many fronts at a time when speed is of the essence,” he said. “I see some real storm clouds on the horizon.”

Despite the challenges, some said they would use the visit by Francis as a moment to reflect on the war and move on from it. Virginia Casas (40) left the capital's cathedral this week on a cloudy Tuesday having finished prayers to the Virgin of Chiquinquirá, the patron saint of Colombia whose image was brought to the cathedral for Francis's visit.

The conflict was on her mind that afternoon, along with her cousin and nephew who were kidnapped during the war.

“The Farc have gone back into civilian life,” she said on the steps of the church. “And I’ve forgiven them. Of course I have.”

New York Times