ROME – The Catholic Church in Colombia says dialogue efforts between the government and the National Strike Committee (CNP) will resume, despite an announcement on Sunday by the government that the CNP had decided to “unilaterally suspend the dialogue.”
The dialogue efforts between the government and the CNP, composed mostly of unions, began a month ago and was mediated by the Catholic Church and United Nations.
Representatives met several times without any progress, because neither party is willing to budge: The government is asking strikers to lift the blockades that have created havoc on many of the nation’s main highways since the protests began on April 28, and the strikers want the government of President Iván Duque to sign a protocol that guarantees peaceful protests and limits the use of force by the Colombian police.
A delegation from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) arrived in Colombia on Sunday ahead of a June 8-10 visit to the country to assess the human rights situation.
At the end of a day of talks on Sunday, Father Fabio Henao Gaviria, the Caritas director who is the facilitator of the process on behalf of the Colombian Episcopal Conference, said he believes that the dialogue had been positive, and despite the pause in the negotiations, progress is being made on setting “a national agenda based on the needs of different regions of the country.”
Therefore “the Church is willing to continue accompanying the process, both at the national level and in the territories” and also “reiterates its closeness to the most vulnerable sectors, particularly the youth.”
Several regions in Colombia are holding their own dialogues, particularly in the largest cities, such as Cali and Bogota, most impacted by the violence during the protests. These efforts are still ongoing, despite the temporary suspension of the national dialogue.
Protestors have argued that they had been peaceful in their rallies and that violence only broke out when the police suppressed the demonstrations using violence. Several allegations of human rights violations have been made, including by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
More than 40 people died in the protests and hundreds were wounded. There are also 25 allegations of sexual violence by members of the police during the protests.
According to Archbishop Dario Monsalve Mejia, “the global pandemic has made us all children of the same need, and the national strike, by affecting mobility and distribution, has made everyone feel scarcity, hunger and absolute need, which means vital sustenance for everyone.”
In a statement released on Sunday for the feast of Corpus Christi, the prelate linked the celebration with the lives of Colombians: “The evil and perverse violence, with which some have infiltrated the peaceful protest, and have made armed citizens clash with unarmed citizens, makes us see human blood flow not in the veins, but in the streets and in the territories.”
He called on all citizens to “drink from the cup of Christ’s blood, which means purifying the soul, receiving forgiveness from God and swearing not to kill.”
Bishop Elkin Alvarez of Santa Rosa de Osos and secretary general of the Colombian bishops conference, asked Colombians to continue praying for the country, independently of the dialogue efforts: In these “difficult times that the country continues to go through today, it demands the commitment of all of us Catholics to continue in constant prayer.”
“It is very important to dedicate long moments to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, in community, praying for peace, the reconciliation of the country and the overcoming of this critical moment we are living,” he added.
The voice of the bishops has morphed since the protests began back in April. The day before the beginning of the general strike, the conference invited people to avoid marching because of the risks involved with the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the apprehension, they recognized the legitimacy of peaceful protests and acknowledged the “complexity of the current situation.”
As the strike gained momentum, however, the bishops were less tepid in their support of the grievances of the protestors, in a country where 23.9 million people lived on less than $91 a month in 2020. The country’s total population is 51 million people, with 37.5 percent living below the poverty line.
“We recognize the legitimate motivations that have led millions of Colombians to express in the streets and in other scenarios their dissatisfaction with the situations of injustice in the country,” one bishop wrote in a May 12 statement. “Being one of the most unequal countries in the world, with nearly half of the population living in poverty, are sufficient reasons for the cup to run over.”
Duque, a Catholic, became president with the support of conservative sectors of the Catholic Church and members of evangelical Christian churches. Now, when the country is going through its deepest crisis in decades, these churches have aligned themselves with the protestors.
“We have realized that the main actor of the strike has been the youth,” said Henao in his post-dialogue reflections. “They have been among the most affected by unemployment and the pandemic. This led us to ask not to stigmatize the protest and to understand that many do not have opportunities, that there is a great lack of hope.”
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