ROME— Following Pope Francis’ appeals for the Church to be a bridge-builder, Catholic bishops up and down Latin America are joining forces with some unlikely partners to address the continent’s problems, from a violent land conflict in Chile to a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, as well as an increasingly turbulent teachers’ strike in Mexico.
Here are three examples in which Church leaders are trying to act as game-changers in various parts of the pope’s home continent.
A long-standing conflict in southern Chile, with the indigenous Mapuche people at its epicenter, has been escalating for years, with scores of casualties, plantations destroyed, dozens of Catholic Churches burned, and trucks transporting goods attacked.
The conflict, which arguably dates to 1536 when Chile was “discovered” by the Spaniards, is the result of a historic land conflict, with the Mapuche demanding the restoration of territories they consider their “ancestral heritage.”
The present violence began in the 1990s, and it pits the country’s biggest ethnic group against farmers and entrepreneurs.
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the La Araucania region is trying to open channels of dialogue while largely siding with the grievances of the indigenous population, which amounts to 12 percent of Chile’s 17.6 million citizens.
In an attempt to bring a solution, Chile’s left-leaning government under Michelle Bachelet called for a roundtable meeting earlier in the month, in which the bishop of Temuco, the largest city among those affected by the conflict, is a key member.
“The role that I have right now, and that of the Catholic Church, is just to be a facilitator of dialogue within and outside the dialogue table,” bishop Héctor Eduardo Vargas Bastidas told journalists recently.
“This is a role that the Church cannot refuse,” he said.
Although he was playing down his role, Vargas Bastidas was named to the dialogue table as the point man in terms of contacts between the authorities and the Mapuches.
The initiative has drawn criticism, in part because some groups involved in the conflict weren’t invited, yet the roundtable is scheduled to continue meeting every 15 days for six months, trying to craft legislation to resolve the situation long-term.
With a humanitarian crisis acknowledged by everyone but the national government of President Nicolas Maduro, the situation in Venezuela appears to be deteriorating daily. According to local media, Venezuelans now spend an average of 35 hours a month to buy food, waiting in line for hours, at the risk of falling prey of robbers who often assault the desperate shoppers.
According to a July 12 report from The Associated Press, a 25-year-old man waiting in line to go to the drugstore was recently shot eight times for not giving up his phone, while those around him remained unmoved, afraid of losing their place.
The Speaker of the Venezuelan National Assembly and opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup said on Saturday that the coalition he represents is ready to dialogue with “whoever” to save the country.
“If we have to sit down at the table to talk with [evil spirits like] Mandinga or La Sayona or Lucifer, with whoever to save this country…we will do it,” he said.
Yet Ramos Allup said there were some “non-negotiable” conditions, such as a recall referendum, which would bring Maduro’s government down, has to be held this year, the situation of the political prisoners and acknowledging the humanitarian crisis, which would allow foreign help to come in.
However, the request at the top of the list, according to local publication La Verdad, is for the Vatican to appoint a mediator, something to which the local bishops’ conference has already agreed.
“We reiterate the call to encounter, forgiveness and reconciliation,” said Archbishop Diego Padron last week, before offering the Church’s willigness to “facilitate and win this dialogue.”
Opening the bishop’s general assembly, Padron said the Church was making the offering despite the government’s prohibition for religious institutions to help the people.
Although he didn’t say so, the prelate was referring to a decision to block foreign aid coming from Catholic charities such as Caritas. By cutting the international supply, local branches have been left empty-handed to offer emergency assistance.
On Monday, striking Mexican teachers made preliminary progress in talks with government officials, agreeing to a roadmap for the next steps in negotiations as protests in at least 10 cities across five Mexican states continued to put pressure on authorities to overhaul education policies.
At issue are education reforms implemented by centrist President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013. The country´s national teachers’ union, known by the Spanish acronym CNTE, claims the measures have failed to improve education and are demanding sweeping changes, especially to provisions that introduced a merit-based system for hiring, promoting and firing teachers.
Protests have been mounting for weeks, and on June 20 the government followed through on its threat to use force against dissident teachers. In the southern state of Oaxaca, the police killed at least 12 protestors and dozens were injured.
Monday’s agreement from CNTE to continue the negotiations came after three local bishops raised their voices on the issue over the weekend, calling on both the teachers and the national government to start talking to one another again.
Archbishop Jose Luiz Chavez Botello, of Antequera asked for the parties to support a general truce, in order to generate conditions for an “open and transparent dialogue.”
Bishop Feliz Arizmendi Esquivel, of San Cristobal de las Casas added that when the conflict is over true education reform needs to be implemented, including both labor and management.
“It should be complete, integral, so that it is able to form the mind and the heart, with the collaboration first and foremost of parents and teachers,” he said.
In a statement released on Sunday, Arizmendi also said that he, together with several other bishops from the region, will continue with their appeals for dialogue between the CNTE and the authorities, expressing their support for many of the teachers’ requests.
Those points include that public education shouldn’t be privatized; that the rights of teachers must be respected; and the country must come together to draw up an education model based on integral development.