ROME – On his return from a trip to Asia last month, Pope Francis was asked about protests in Hong Kong. He answered by saying there are many places today facing social revolt, citing Chile, France, Spain, Nicaragua and “other Latin American countries.”
“It’s something general,” he said. “How does the Holy See handle it? It calls for dialogue, for peace.”
On the ground in each of these countries, the Church already is involved in dialogue – with the success of those efforts often depending not so much on the availability of the hierarchy but its credibility, both in terms of the Vatican and the local bishops.
In some cases, such as Nicaragua, there’s a direct effort by the papal representative, while in others, the Vatican takes a more behind-the-scenes stance while local bishops openly challenge regimes, as in the case of Venezuela.
Here’s a sampling from across Latin America, a region Francis himself said is presently “in flames.”
In mid-November, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua said Francis had requested the government of Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo to free more than 150 political prisoners the government has held since a social uprising began last year.
“I found out that the Holy Father asked the government for a gesture of good will by listening to the demand of the mothers of the political prisoners,” Brenes said.
“I believe the request from the Holy Father came in a very private way, and hopefully the voice of the Holy Father will be heard and the mothers will have their children back, especially for Christmas,” he added.
On Friday, Nicaragua’s “Association Pro-Human Rights” announced that the papal ambassador, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, is negotiating the release of those jailed by the government for anti-Ortega protests.
“More than 150 political prisoners could be released through the negotiations,” said a statement by the group quoted by Spanish news agency EFE.
This information was confirmed by the nuncio, who said “many things are being done” for the release of what he, too, has called “political prisoners.”
It’s unclear how advanced the negotiations are, but Crux was able to confirm there’s an active effort for men and women currently in isolation and without a trial date to be home for Christmas (Dec. 25).
According to the country’s political opposition, there are at least 172 political prisoners.
Sommertag was a witness to failed negotiations between the government and the opposition last year. Ortega had promised to free all jailed members of the opposition, but in the end, only 620 were freed on probation.
Recently about a dozen women, mothers of political prisoners, staged a hunger strike after being banned from leaving the church of San Miguel, in Masaya, near Managua. The women had attended a Mass during which they prayed for their children behind bars.
A larger group had been stopped from entering the church before the liturgy began by the police. Those already inside were forced to remain, with no water or electricity, as security forces and paramilitary groups surrounded the doors.
Sixteen young men and women were arrested two weeks ago as they tried to bring water to the women in the church. Their trial was set to start last Thursday, but it was postponed by a judge. Police have claimed there was no water in the cars of the group but that they did find weapons, including home-made explosives, a charge the members of the group deny.
Dec. 2 marked the fourth day of strikes in Colombia after 11 days of protests. The government of far-right President Ivan Duque originally tried to repress the protests through violence, but after a failed attempt, they have become almost entirely peaceful.
On Sunday, Duque tried again to stigmatize the protesters by claiming that “pyromaniacs” are inciting violence, but there have been no reports of violence.
Protesters want Duque and the fragile coalition he leads to change economic models, rejecting reforms which, they claim, would be harmful to the working class and the poor. Unions leading the protests also emphatically reject the plan of the government not to respect a peace agreement signed by former President Juan Manuel Santos with the FARC, the guerrilla group that tormented the country for decades.
Monsignor Rafael Cotrino, administrative vicar of the Archdiocese of Bogota, said that it’s necessary for both the government and the leaders of the protests to put their “arrogance” aside and attempt an honest dialogue.
“I would say that everyone needs a good dose of humility,” he said. “Everyone is [being] a bit arrogant, and arrogance is not a good counselor. Humility helps us to really look at who we are and what we can do, because we not only require them [government and protesters] to present the most urgent needs but also take into account what we can do as a country.”
According to Cotrino, for Colombia to close its inequality gaps, it’s necessary for everyone to “give up certain privileges” so as to help improve the “condition of the most fragile.” If one wants to advance as a country, he said, it’s necessary to have “a vision of the common good” because if each sector pretends to be the main one, there will be no improvement.
If each sector lobbies only for what they want, then at the end of any reform, Cotrino said, systemic inequality at the roots of the revolt will remain.
Last week, a four-member delegation from Venezuela visited several European countries claiming to be representatives of a “dialogue table” set up last September to try to find a solution for the troubled country.
Among the stops on the tour was the Vatican Nov. 28-29, where the group was hoping to be welcomed by the Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, or another top official, perhaps Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Pena Parra, the third-in-command.
They hand-delivered a letter in advance to Francis in which they said they wanted to talk “in a spirit of transparency” about political advances in the country in attempts to “recover the so highly longed-for peace.”
Yet all four members of the entourage were well-known allies of the Nicolas Maduro government, and they received a tepid welcome at best in the countries they visited, including the Vatican. Instead of the Secretary of State they were welcomed by an official of the protocol office, who took their letter and sent them on their way.
In the past, Francis has been accused by some of remaining silent on Venezuela. His unwillingness to openly condemn Maduro, much like St. John Paul II avoided directly condemning Fidel Castro, has been read both by the president and his critics as a sign of support.
However, on several occasions Francis has said that he stands with the bishops of Venezuela, known for their confrontational stance on Maduro, and that their opinion is his.
This was confirmed by Italian Archbishop Aldo Giordano, papal representative in the country since 2013.
“The pope has said several times: ‘I speak through the bishops of Venezuela,’” Giordano told Religion Digital. “And the bishops never speak without being sure of the pope’s opinion. This communion is a gift of the Church of Venezuela, because we have many problems.”
In an interview published on Sunday, the prelate said that the suffering of the people of Venezuela is “our first problem and our only interest.”
“We don’t have a political interest, we have an interest for the people, for the nation,” he said. “The same for the pope. Our attempt, always, is for the Church to be close to the citizens.”
The bishops, who have been very outspoken against Maduro, calling him a dictator and urging for the president to resign the presidency, have long stated that Francis has their back.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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