Colombia: Did Pope Francis Sway Opponents of Peace Accord?

By Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias*

Composite image of Santos, Uribe, and Pope Francis

Ex-president Álvaro Uribe (bottom left) continues to be at odds with current president Juan Manuel Santos (top left) over the government’s peace accords, despite Pope Francis’s call for putting peace above politics. / Santos: UNESCO/ Christelle ALIX / Flickr / Uribe: Centro Democrático / Flickr / Pope Francis: Mazur / Catholic News / Flickr / All: Modified / Creative Commons

Pope Francis’s recent visit to Colombia included a powerful message to the people, but overcoming the country’s deep polarization and high level of uncertainty around implementation of the government’s peace accords with the FARC will remain difficult as national elections next May 2018 approach.  Massive crowds assembled peacefully and homicides plummeted during his visit, and he is credited with facilitating a ceasefire between the government and the country’s other leftist insurgency, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), in force from October 1 to January 12.  The Pontiff’s reflections about peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation were seen in Colombia not only as a prayer but also as a political message to both the Catholic Church hierarchy and the country’s political leaders to unify behind a commitment to peace.

  • Divisions within the Church over the peace process will be difficult to heal. While many clergy have allied the political elite and its more conservative views about the FARC guerrilla movement, many others, such as the Archbishop of Cali, have supported approval of the resulting accords and their implementation.  The Conference of Bishops encouraged participation in last December’s plebiscite, but has remained neutral – despite the Pope’s prodding.  When President Santos and former President Uribe, a strident opponent of the accords, met with Francis in the Vatican in December, the Pope pushed hard for them to find common ground, but they left the meeting without white smoke emerging from the chimney.

Not surprisingly, Santos and Uribe don’t appear any closer to agreement after the Pope’s visit either.  Santos deeply thanked the Pope for his support of the peace process and after his departure, echoed the Pope’s main call to “to build bridges,” to “deactivate hatred,” to renounce vengeance, and to “reconcile ourselves in a fraternal encounter.”  Francis didn’t meet with Uribe (and there’s no indication that the former President requested a meeting) and spent his time in Antioquia meeting with the poor.  Uribe and his Centro Democrático party reiterated their discrepancies with the agreement.  In a public letter to the Pope, the former president said he had never opposed peace, but he forcefully rejected the political character of the war and, claiming the FARC was merely a narcoterrorist organization, and he denied their eligibility to participate in Colombian democracy.  “The legal authorization they have received to spend illicit money on their political activities, and other points, constitute incentives for crime,” he said.  Parties aligned with Uribe in opposition to the accords – Cambio Radical and the Conservative Party – have also tried to delink the Pope’s message about peace from the peace agreement itself.  They advocate a new peace agreement.

Even though the Pope hasn’t helped the two presidents mend fences yet, his concept of peace has resonated with the country’s social and political movements, ethnic groups, victims, and intellectuals.  A nascent coalition of left-leaning minority parties, called Ni-Ni’s, could give voice and organization to them and – perhaps in the future – bring some pressure to bear on opponents of the accords to come toward the middle.  Congressional elections next March and Presidential elections two months later guarantee that implementation of the peace accords will remain front and center in Colombian politics.  The national debate may be politically satisfying to some, but it will essentially preclude the sort of renegotiation that Uribe’s forces demand while also forcing delays in important national reconciliation measures.  Even if he wanted to, Santos doesn’t have the authority to jettison one of the measures most neuralgic for his opponents – the idea that a Truth Commission will bring to justice military officers accused of abuses during Uribe’s presidency and politicians linked to paramilitary forces – and, even if he could, it would not guarantee a strong enough consensus to plow ahead with the peace plan.  Pope Francis may have sown the mustard seeds of a popular movement to press conservatives to compromise, but many challenges remain.

 September 26, 2017

* Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias is a Ph.D. Candidate in International Politics and Conflict Studies at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and a CLALS Fellow.

El Salvador: Just Saying No to Gold Mining

By Rachel Nadelman*

El Salvador mining

Photo Credit: laura / Flickr / Creative Commons

El Salvador’s refusal to allow gold mining within its borders sets it apart from most other Latin American countries, but the mining suspension is far from permanent.  Since 2007, three successive presidents, from both the right-wing ARENA and left-wing FMLN parties, have maintained an administrative metals mining “industry freeze.”  This executive action has created a de-facto moratorium that prevents all mining firms – international and Salvadoran, public and private – from accessing El Salvador’s estimated 1.4 million ounces of gold deposits.  Some in the Salvadoran media trumpet this policy.  When former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a philanthropic visit to El Salvador earlier this month, a number of news stories fixated on one of his travel companions: Canadian mining magnate Frank Guistra.  Some media slammed Guistra as “persona non grata in El Salvador.”  They showcased his billion-dollar global mining investments, labeling him (incorrectly) a major shareholder in Oceana Gold, the Australian company suing El Salvador for $284 million for having denied the firm a license to mine.

The mining freeze represents a drastic break from El Salvador’s past economic strategy.  In the 1990s, after the civil war, El Salvador, encouraged by international donors and creditors, embraced mining as an opportunity for economic growth.  Environmental activists challenged the policy, emphasizing the country’s ecological vulnerability and worsening threats of water scarcity and deforestation.  Consecutive ARENA governments ignored these arguments and implemented legal and regulatory reforms to attract foreign mining firms.  But a community-based social movement changed that.

  • Led by a decade-old Salvadoran coalition “roundtable” (with some international support) against mining, this movement strategically promoted a campaign that is pro-water rather than anti-industry, based on rigorously collected and analyzed scientific evidence.
  • The Salvadoran Catholic Church, citing doctrine as prioritizing water and land over economic gain, has provided the movement a level of non-partisan, moral legitimacy.
  • Individual government officials from across elected, appointed, and civil servant ranks have ensured that El Salvador’s weak but existent administrative mechanisms resist pressure from powerful multinational business to reverse policy.
  • A number of Salvadoran companies relying on water and land resources, such as agrobusiness, ranchers, and producers of juices and soft drinks, have largely stayed out of the debate, eliminating a potentially huge obstacle to the movement’s agenda.

The media’s zeal – strong enough for them to mistakenly connect Frank Guistra to Oceana Gold and the ongoing lawsuit – reflects strong popular support for the administrative freeze on mining.  My field research and earlier studies indicate that most Salvadorans do not see the environmental threat from mining as imagined.  Nonetheless, the suspension is precarious – based only on executive action and not legislation that would permanently prohibit mining.  Many in the anti-mining movement believe that a suspension is inadequate over the long term because a change in government could lead to its reversal.  New mining technology, which purportedly would ward against environmental damage, could give political leaders a pretext for lifting the moratorium.  Yet others who support the freeze under current environmental conditions want to have the option of opening the country to mining available in the future.  For those who advocate that total prohibition is the only solution, the fight to stop mining permanently for El Salvador will be a long one.

November 23, 2015

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service, whose dissertation research focuses on the unique aspects of El Salvador’s mining policies.

Correction: November 23, 2015

The original photo accompanying this blog was incorrectly labeled as being from a Salvadoran mining town.  The photo was actually taken in a town named El Salvador, Chile, and is unrelated to the content of this post.

Colombia: Historic Progress, Historic Challenges

By Fulton Armstrong

Colombia Peace

The leadership shown by Colombian President Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” – encouraged by the Vatican and the governments of Cuba, Norway, and the United States – will be tested as challenges to completion and implementation of a final accord are certain to be intense.  The President and FARC leader announced last week that they’d resolved the thorny issue of justice for guerrilla and government commanders accused of serious crimes and set a deadline of 23 March 2016 to sign a peace agreement.  The most important – and controversial – provision covers “transitional justice” for a range of offenses, including crimes against humanity.  Most of the estimated 6,000 rank-and-file FARC combatants will get amnesty, while commanders will choose between confessing their crimes and serving five- to eight-year terms performing labor in institutions other than prisons, or refusing to cooperate at the risk of much longer terms in prison.  (The same procedures will be established for government military officers accused of atrocities and those guilty of financing the paramilitary fighters who ravaged the countryside through the mid-2000s.)  The FARC also agreed that guerrillas would begin handing in their weapons when the final accord is signed.  Negotiators had previously agreed on rural development strategies, political participation, and counterdrug policies.

Almost universally, the agreement has been hailed as an historic achievement.  The announcement in Havana capped three years of talks facilitated by “guarantors” Cuba and Norway and later supported by the United States, represented by former Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson.  During a mass in Cuba several days earlier, Pope Francis had implored the two sides to strike a deal, noting that “we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation.”  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry called the Havana accord a “major breakthrough” and pledged that Aronson would stay closely engaged.

Latin American peace accords – most ending wars much shorter than the five decades of Colombia’s – provide ample evidence that the road ahead, however historic, will not be without difficult challenges.   

  • The accord will require a constitutional amendment, and President Santos will have to submit it for congressional approval and a national referendum. Former President Uribe, who leads Centro Democrático, has already declared war on it, calling it “a coup against democracy” that will lead to a “new dictatorship backed by guns and explosives.”  (Uribe also attacked Kerry’s statement as “deplorable.”)  Public discussion of details of guerrilla abuses, including forced youth recruitment and sexual violence, will play into opponents’ hand.
  • Colombian Prosecutor General Alejandro Ordóñez, an Uribe ally, said last week that any accord that does not entail prison terms for FARC commanders guilty of crimes would be “legally and politically untenable.” He claimed that it would violate victims’ rights and international law, which requires that punishment for war crimes be “proportional to the crimes committed.”  Human Rights Watch also condemned the provision and predicted the International Criminal Court would do so as well. 
  • Fulfilling commitments in the agreement to address the longstanding lack of government infrastructure in huge expanses of the country, help even modestly the resettlement of the more than 5 million persons displaced by violence, and expand programs to alleviate poverty and income inequality will have price tag beyond Colombia’s current ability to pay. Informal estimates of the 10-year cost are $30 billion.  The willingness of Colombian elites, who only grudgingly paid a war tax, to help foot the bill is far from certain.
  • The FARC’s ability to enforce discipline among its rank and file is also untested. There are reports that some commanders oppose any agreement.  Moreover, like demobilized paramilitary combatants, many combatants know no life other than rural combat and will be tempted to keep their weapons and join criminal networks that continue to terrorize rural communities.
  • The outstanding U.S. warrants for the extradition on drug-trafficking charges of reportedly dozens of FARC commanders may require some finessing, but Colombia’s peace commissioner, Sergio Jaramillo, suggested confidence that Washington will not demand extraditions if, as is almost certain, they would be a deal-breaker.

September 29, 2015

The Papal Encyclical: Driving Debate in Latin America

By Evan Berry*

Pope Francis

Photo Credit: Raffaele Esposito / Flickr / Creative Commons

Pope Francis’s encyclical on human ecology, due to be published this week, seems likely to contribute to a range of ongoing debates.  Entitled Laudato Sii, the document has already become a touchstone for debates about the moral dimension of climate politics and triggered heated debate within the global Catholic community about the pontiff’s authority on climate change.  It links care for the poor with environmental stewardship and makes a theological case against the “culture of consumerism.”  A vocal Catholic environmental movement has embraced it, while detractors are raising concerns about the fusion of theology and science, and some Church conservatives fear it will feed into arguments for “population control.”  Non-Catholics, including secular environmental organizations, the progressive media, and leaders from other religious traditions, are also studying it.

Champions of the document claim that it could have broad implications.  They expect it to legitimize civil society organizations committed to the climate and justice; affect the behavior of millions of individual Catholics; influence Catholic political leaders who are skeptical or obstructionist about climate change; and become a factor in ongoing international negotiations.  Perhaps zealously, these claims imply that tectonic changes are underway in the international political landscape, especially in the United States, where Hispanic Catholics are the demographic group most concerned about climate change, and in Latin America, a region both shaped heavily by Catholic tradition and uniquely imperiled by the threat of global warming.

For Latin America, which has been front and center in climate politics in recent years, the implications of the encyclical are potentially deep.  Peru and Brazil have hosted recent international conferences on climate change, and the Amazon, a key global carbon sink, ensures governments’ high interest in the international environmental dialogue.  The region’s vulnerability to glacial melt, storm intensification, drought, and rising sea levels also give the issue salience.  The challenges posed by climate change come at a time that many lower-income countries believe that Latin America can be a source of development models that address income gaps, raise literacy rates, and expand access to health care while protecting the environment.  Francis’s teachings on ecology and consumerism will resonate with and reinforce existing ecological movements – Buen Vivir and other groups link the issues – and his imprimatur could even facilitate rapprochement between leftists and centrists within the Church.  On a political level, the region’s reliance on energy exports, such as in the Pope’s native Argentina, may make it harder for public officials to advocate oil and gas development without seriously addressing the climatic impact.  The situation is similar in Brazil, where Pope Francis’ popularity and ecological orientation are starkly contrasted with the President Rousseff’s abysmal ratings and poor oversight of Petrobras.  But religion, environment, and politics are nowhere more likely to come into confluence than in Peru, where an upcoming election touches on several intensive socio-environmental conflicts, and where public awareness about climate change is well established.  Whether or not the Latin American leader of the region’s historically dominant religion has all the solutions, his encyclical seems likely to play into the moral and political debates the region needs and welcomes.

June 16, 2015

*Evan Berry is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University.

More Cracks in the EU’s “Common Position” on Cuba

By William M. LeoGrande*

eu cubaThe visit of Dutch Foreign Minister Timmermans to Cuba earlier this month marks yet another crack in the European Union’s 1996 Common Position on Cuba, which conditions normal relations with the island on democratic reforms. Days later, EU Commission President Barroso acknowledged that a number of member states were pressing for a reevaluation of the Common Position, and Spanish Foreign Minister García Margallo announced that the issue would be taken up at the EU foreign ministers meeting on 10 February – adding, however, that any new policy “would have, as a determining factor, respect for human rights.” Amending the Common Position will require unanimity among the EU’s member states, something conservative governments – especially in the former socialist countries – have thus far blocked.

The Common Position has severely constrained the ability of Brussels to respond creatively to rapidly changing conditions in Cuba today, but various European governments have expanded their bilateral economic and political ties with Cuba despite its strictures. Trade between Cuba and Europe, at 2.5 billion euros annually, has roughly tripled since 1996, and official development assistance to Cuba has quadrupled to nearly 60 million euros annually. Policies of engagement have proven more successful than policies of hostility and confrontation.  In 2010, quiet diplomacy by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s government enabled Spain to play a crucial mediating role between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church, leading to the release of more than a hundred political prisoners – the largest such release since the 1970s.

Cuba today is moving in directions that the EU has long favored.  The “updating” of the Cuban economic model, begun in 2011, entails greater economic openness, reduced government regulation of private markets, and a larger role for private sector businesses. At the same time, although challenging Cuba’s one-party system or its socialist society is still out of bounds, there has been a very gradual opening of political space to debate the shape of Cuba’s future.  Replacing the Common Position does not mean that European states, individually or collectively, would abandon their commitment to encouraging greater human rights and democracy in Cuba.  But a warmer political climate would enable them to express their concerns more effectively through quiet diplomacy. What offends Cuba’s leaders is not that other states have different views on these issues; it is that the Common Position makes normal relations contingent on Cuba conforming to European norms, a litmus test that no other Latin American country is required to pass.

*Dr. LeoGrande is Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.  This article is excerpted from an essay (click here) he wrote for the London School of Economics and Political Science blog.

El Salvador: Memory, the persistent discomfort

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Mural that was removed from the Metropolitan Cathedral under Archbishop Escobar Alas / Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn / Foter / CC BY-NC

Mural that was removed from the Metropolitan Cathedral under Archbishop Escobar Alas / Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn / Foter / CC BY-NC

The sudden closure of the Legal Aid Service – Tutela Legal – of the Archbishop of San Salvador appears to be a massive blow to efforts to hold human rights violators and war criminals from the civil war accountable for their deeds.  Without previous notice or warrant, workers arrived at their offices on September 30 to find new locks on the doors and private guards blocking the entrance.  That same day some of the workers claimed to have discovered evidence indicating that Monsignor José Luis Escobar Alas, the Archbishop, had long before decided to close Tutela.  The office was opened in 1982 by Mons. Arturo Rivera Damas to fulfill a project designed by his predecessor, Mons. Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop killed two years earlier during mass by a death squad and who is now under consideration for sainthood by the Vatican.  It holds one of the most detailed archives on the repression, crimes and human rights violations committed during the Salvadoran war, mainly by state-sponsored agents.

Mons. Escobar Alas has surprised observers in the past.  In late 2011, he ordered the removal of a mural by a popular Salvadoran artist from the Metropolitan Cathedral without any explanation to the artist or to the church’s large congregation.  The mural commemorated the earliest attempts at a negotiated settlement to the war.  Facing an outcry, Escobar Alas claimed the mural was Church property and that the Church was entitled to do with it as it pleased.  The same tone was evident after the Tutela closing as protests came not just from a good number of Catholics but from the Ombudsman’s office, the President of the Republic and 258 US and Salvadoran scholars who ran an ad in a major newspaper.  The Archbishop and his spokesmen provided at least three different versions of the event, saying alternately that Tutela was closed because it had already served the purpose for which it was created in the war years; it was closed to give its spaces to an ad hoc commission (with an unclear mandate and authorities); and that the Church had encountered financial wrongdoings in Tutela so grave that it had to close.

The closure happened at a time of important progress in human rights accountability.  At the center of it all was access to Tutela’s archives, some 50,000 files about the infamous 1980s – potentially crucial evidence in ongoing or upcoming judicial processes that Salvadoran elites have long tried to keep under wraps.  For the first time in a decade, last month the Attorney General’s office made public its intention to open a special unit committed to review war massacres such as the one in El Mozote, where some 1,000 peasants were killed by a U.S.-trained elite battalion.  Also, for the first time since the early post-war period, an independent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice agreed to hold a hearing on the admissibility of a case under the Amnesty Law, the legal provision that has prevented many cases from being brought to justice.  And for the first time, there is a real chance for a Spanish court to address the murder of six Jesuit priests and their two aides after one of the accused in that massacre, a colonel, was convicted and imprisoned in a U.S. jail pending extradition to Madrid.  In all of these legal cases, the files held by Tutela Legal would provide crucial documentation to prosecutors.  The only credible explanation for the closing of the service is that pressure was brought to bear on the Archbishop by interests that wish to block access to this important body of evidence in the event that they are unable to prevent trials from opening. 

The ad hoc commission that the Archbishop said will be formed will include members with credibility – including Father José María Tojeira, former Jesuit envoy for Central America, and Mons. Jesús Delgado, Archbishop Romero´s biographer – and may hold some promise.  But the vagueness about its authority and technical questions, including the legal admissibility of Tutela files as the chain of custody is broken, raise serious doubts.  Whatever happens, the many Salvadorans who believe in the healing power of memory – and accountability – will need to remain constantly vigilant.  The same memory has been a persistent discomfort to some Salvadoran elites, who have long thwarted such efforts.

 

Argentina’s Mid-term Elections: the beginning of the end for Cristina?

By Santiago Anria and Federico Fuchs *

Cristina Fernández mural Photo credit: CateIncBA / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Cristina Fernández mural Photo credit: CateIncBA / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Rising inflation, loss of confidence by the private sector, and lack of access to international credit markets make victory in Argentina’s mid-term elections on October 27 especially important for President Cristina Fernández – or else she will face the prospect of two years as a lame duck.  Her governing Front for Victory (FPV) faction of the Justicialist Party (PJ) seeks to protect its legislative majority.  (Half the seats of the lower chamber and a third of those in the upper chamber are at stake.)  Based on the results of the Open, Simultaneous and Obligatory Primaries (PASO) held on August 11, the FPV appears likely to lose some seats but still maintain a slight majority, considering that a number of the seats in dispute in the lower chamber correspond to districts in which it fared poorly in the 2009 elections.  Before her unexpected surgery last week, Fernández had been central to the electoral campaign, hand-picking and endorsing Lomas de Zamora Mayor Martín Insaurralde as the first deputy on the FPV’s list.  According to some surveys, previous adjustments to her communications strategy increased her approval ratings, and with her recovery from surgery expected to take a month, there is speculation that the FPV may win some additional “sympathy” votes.

The PASO primaries showed that the FPV lost in key electoral districts, including the city of Buenos Aires, and the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba and Mendoza, but that it continues to be the only political force with national reach.  The opposition remains fragmented, but Sergio Massa, a former government ally and current mayor of Tigre (elected on the FPV ticket), has emerged as the key opponent in Buenos Aires province and as a likely presidential candidate for the 2015 elections.  He may challenge Daniel Scioli, who is the current governor of Buenos Aires and is, at least until now, backed by Fernández as her potential successor despite resistance from some factions within the FPV).  Massa’s Frente Renovador still has limited territorial reach, but he enjoys the support of the mainstream media, a branch of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), the Church and, perhaps most importantly, a prominent group of mayors in Buenos Aires province.  He is trying to capture a more centrist vote, promising the “end of confrontational politics” and focusing on what he claims are the “real issues” affecting Argentines – corruption, citizen security and crime prevention, and inflation.

The results of the upcoming elections will define the options for the Fernández administration.  If the FPV fails to keep a solid majority in Congress, the issue of constitutional reform that would allow for reelection will be off the table, and Fernández will not be able to run for a third term.  In policy terms, negative results will increase pressure for economic adjustment and pro-business policies. Fernández and her predecessor, deceased husband Néstor Kirchner, have both proven their capacity to revamp their administrations after electoral defeat by defying such pressures and raising the stakes. But with defeat in the polls, and with a diminished force in Congress, it will be harder for her to maintain party discipline as the prospects for 2015 grow bleaker.  A lot also depends on how the opposition fares: a clear winner among them (most likely Massa) will become a clear challenger for 2015 and probably put even greater limits on any government strategy, whereas a still atomized opposition may give Fernández more leeway. The task ahead for the FPV will be to define and support a presidential candidate that can continue the Kirchnerista project. Performing well in the congressional elections will give Fernández more room to define this, or to at least block non-desired candidates.  We may be witnessing the beginning of the end for Cristina, but it is not clear whether any of the opposition candidates can force her to steer the Kirchnerista project in a new direction.  Not even the most plausible contender in the opposition (Massa) or the most likely successor in the FPV (Scioli) seems to have any meaningful change to offer. If both of them represent anything, it is Peronism’s ability to adapt in adverse times to stay in power. But that is nothing new in the history of Peronism.

* Santiago Anria and Federico Fuchs are graduate students in the Department of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Catholic Church as a Field Hospital after Battle

By Alexander Wilde

Pope Francis / Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis / Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis is presenting a fresh and personal vision of the Catholic church and Christian faith that seems likely to breathe new life into the church in Latin America.  In a long interview released last week, he couched his message in terms appropriate to his global responsibilities, but it reflects how this first Pontiff from Latin America reads the recent history of his native region and its church. “I see the church,” he said, “as a field hospital after battle.” Having lived through several generations of often bitter conflict and traumatic violence, he clearly believes that the church must, in his words, “heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.” This dramatic, arresting metaphor of the church’s role in ministering to the human condition as he sees it today suggests that he aims to chart a fresh course – in the church and in society – after the divisions that marked the papacies of his two immediate predecessors. “The image of the Church I like,” he said in language that echoes the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and Latin America’s Liberation Theology, “is that of the holy, faithful people of God…on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows.”

This vision seems firmly rooted in his own experience as Jesuit Provincial and Archbishop in Argentina, where despite controversies over his actions or inactions during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, he is universally admired for his dedication to pastoral ministry. With this fundamental focus on those wounded by life, Francis will build on a foundation that already exists in Latin America today. Despite the notorious purges of liberationist tendencies in church structures that began in the 1970s, priests, nuns and lay people can be found throughout the continent living out pastoral vocations amidst new (and old) forms of violence at the grassroots. Francis will almost certainly, like his predecessors, affirm most doctrinal orthodoxies, such as the intrinsic value of even unborn human life (“I am a son of the Church”). But already his pastoral emphasis is a clear break: “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must … be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”

Francis thinking is permeated by concepts and practices that come from the Council, Liberation Theology and the pastoral experience of the Latin American church. He clearly hopes to move beyond old divisions and draw from what that church has learned to meet the regions challenges today. Those include a challenge to convey the churchs deepest truths of salvation in ways that Evangelical Protestants have done so successfully in the region. And it is not coincidental that he urges, We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner. He will, undoubtedly, be opposed by conservatives that dominate the church’s ecclesiastical structures (resisting, for example, new paths of policy advocacy by the faithful on issues of poverty and inequality). His new appointments to gatekeeper roles such as nuncios and bishops will be closely watched. He has also inherited an institution shamed by sexual and financial scandals that will demand much of his time and energy. But in just a few months Pope Francis has changed perceptions among Christians and non-believers alike of how the Catholic church may again become a vital force in our world today. In Latin America a new emphasis on face-to-face pastoral ministries among the poor could well move its moral voice for social justice behind already visible popular pressures against growing economic inequality.

Alexander Wilde directs the Center’s two-year project on Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

Pope Francis I: The First Latin American Pope

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

What will the first Pope from Latin America mean for that region, home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics?  Leading scholars – several of them participants in a multi-year research project at American University* – offered insights recently in The New York Times.  Among many factors that they point to as conditioning the leadership of the newly elected Pope Francis – Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires – are how the Church meets the challenge of Evangelical Protestantism and deals with its own past in the region.

With their remarkable rise in recent decades, Evangelicals have broken centuries of Catholic monopoly and made Latin America far more pluralistic religiously than ever before.  Professors Virginia Garrard-Burnett and Daniel Levine underline the limitations of the strategies for renewal employed by the last two Popes – the return to traditional pieties, the adaptation of Pentecostal spiritual practices by “charismatic” Catholics, and the embrace of what Garrard-Burnett calls “neotraditional” organizations such as the elite, secretive Opus Dei.  Levine singles out various Evangelical strengths: churches that “work well with new media, have local leaders close to the community and provide expanded roles for women and minority groups.”  Perhaps the Evangelicals’ most fundamental advantage is their success in making religious faith relevant and real to the millions of Latin Americans that have swelled the region’s violent cities and experienced wrenching social change.

Latin American Catholicism will also be shaped by how it faces its own past in a region where democracies have replaced the dictatorships of old.  The personal story of Pope Francis illustrates different dimensions of that past: an “option for the poor” that took hold after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) together with a long history of ecclesiastical accommodation with repressive regimes.  The Argentine hierarchy as a whole was seen as supportive of the military dictatorship during the massive violation of human rights in 1976‑83.  Bergoglio’s personal role is unclear.  His supporters hold that he combined pastoral concern for his flock with quiet humanitarian diplomacy toward the junta. His critics argue that he failed to protect several left wing priests and his silence constituted complicity with the regime.  Like many other clerics who rose to dominate today’s Latin American hierarchies, he did not publicly defend human rights.

As Pope Francis, Bergoglio’s personal style and pastoral simplicity already mark an important signal to his Church that it must be committed to the poor.  In Latin America it has a historic opportunity to stand for their dignity and foster their empowerment.  Public identification with their cause is vital, but so is living and working with them to overcome the poverty and violence of their communities.  John XXIII, Paul VI and notable Latin American bishops after Vatican II saw this as a matter of securing their fundamental human rights.  This is an enduring legacy of their leadership during dictatorships that Francis and his Church should build on in the democracies of today.

* 2012-13, with the support of the Religion and International Affairs Initiative of the Henry R. Luce Foundation

Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America

By Alexander Wilde, CLALS Research Fellow

Commemoration of those killed in the 1980's at a church in Cordoba, Argentina | By: Pablo Flores "pablodf" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Commemoration of those killed in the 1980’s at a church in Cordoba, Argentina | By: Pablo Flores “pablodf” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin America today is one of the world’s most violent regions. It has been so for 50 years, although the character and agents of violence have changed considerably over time. The “old violence” of the 20th century was largely political, associated with revolutionary insurgencies and repressive regimes that systematically violated fundamental human rights. The “new violence” is largely criminal – illegal drug traffickers and urban gangs are among the leading perpetrators – but its consequences in many societies have been comparably lethal. Countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela and Colombia have among the highest murder rates in the world.  “Citizen security” is a leading issue in politics throughout the region.

Religion played a significant part in confronting the old violence.  Human rights became a new cause for the Catholic Church, which in some cases helped legitimate peace settlements and democratic transitions. In the generation since then, Latin American Christianity has been transformed.  Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have achieved unprecedented growth. Catholicism has been reined in by Rome to curb the influence of Liberation Theology. More pietistic and spiritually-oriented theologies have flourished within both traditions. The result has been a tendency to turn away from the “political” ministries of the past – defending human rights and promoting social justice. The Christian churches, it is widely believed, have failed to address the widespread violence of today.

Fresh research, however, is revealing ways in which – although less visible at the national level – they remain a vital force in violence-plagued societies. A two-year project at American University has produced studies of religiously based shelters for Central American migrants in Mexico, a 15-year Jesuit program of peace building and development in Colombia, and an Evangelical prison ministry in Rio de Janeiro, among a dozen pieces of new research. They identify particularly the significance of an active church presence among poor and marginalized populations, who suffer disproportionately from violence. This “accompaniment” appears to be motivated by Biblically-based beliefs about Christian love, the redemptive power of God and the direct experience of living with these populations in perilous, threatening conditions. Another emerging theme in project research is the potential significance of supportive national and international allies – who clearly contributed to the defense of human rights in the past and remain important in our changed, globalized world.

Violence in Latin America today reflects the wrenching changes these societies have undergone in the last half-century, and religion has been a dynamic dimension of those changes. In the region’s civil societies and the lives of its citizens, Catholic and Evangelical Christianity remains a potent and creative presence. Where it is willing to work and live in situations of conflict and violence, it could find a new role in bringing about more stable, peaceful and just societies.