BOGOTA, Colombia — The brick-built Center for Migrants in Bogota opened its doors as a haven for families displaced by Colombia’s then-raging internal conflict. So as peace came within reach two years ago, its work seemed to be coming to an end and the Scalabrinian nuns contemplated shuttering the 25-bed shelter.
Now it’s bursting at the seams again, this time due to a flood of Venezuelan refugees.
The plight of so many struggling people from the neighboring nation is likely to steal at least some of Pope Francis’s attention when he arrives in Colombia on Wednesday.
While the trip is meant as a celebration of Colombia’s historic peace deal with leftist rebels, pressure is building on the first Latin American pontiff to speak out against the Venezuelan government for the worsening turmoil in that country during his six-day visit.
Whether it’s running soup kitchens in poor barrios of Caracas or attempting to mediate a dialogue between the government and opposition, the Roman Catholic Church has gradually been drawn into Venezuela’s crisis — frequently leading to clashes with supporters of President Nicolas Maduro and causing friction within the church hierarchy.
Venezuelan bishops are traveling to Colombia to meet with Francis during his visit, though it’s not clear what he will say publicly or privately.
Sister Teresinha Monteiro, a Brazilian-born nun who runs the shelter in Bogota, said she hopes Francis will “interfere with the hand of God” to end Venezuela’s social nightmare, which she expects will only worsen. Her shelter, built 22 years ago, has never been busier and the nuns recently had to throw a dozen extra mattresses onto a conference room floor to accommodate the surge of Venezuelans, who make up all but two of the current 40 residents.
Unable to provide a roof for all the Venezuelans arriving in Bogota, she oversees volunteers who every day patrol Bogota’s bus terminal, handing out kits of toiletries and bus fare to those with no place to go.
“You try to instill hope … but the situation is so critical,” said Monteiro, who is taking a group of Venezuelan migrants to Francis’s outdoor Mass in Bogota’s Simon Bolivar Park on Thursday. “Maduro on a whim wants to demonstrate that he’s strong, the owner of the country, and doesn’t care about anybody else.”
Francis has repeatedly expressed concern about events in Venezuela and is kept briefed on the country’s deteriorating political and economic situation by the Vatican’s secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who was the papal ambassador in Caracas between 2009 and 2013.
But many in the Venezuelan opposition were skeptical of his offer last year to sponsor dialogue with the government, seeing it as playing into Maduro’s strategy of buying time, and felt validated when the talks broke down with little to show for them except briefly cooling a nationwide protest movement.
It didn’t burnish the Holy See’s claim to neutrality when pictures surfaced in March of Parolin’s successor as nuncio, Monsignor Aldo Giordano, smiling alongside top officials while reportedly officiating at the wedding of the daughter of a pro-government supreme court magistrate who would later be sanctioned by the U.S. for violating Venezuela’s constitutional order.
Francis, who battled with Latin America’s conservative church hierarchy as archbishop of Buenos Aires, has long been seen as being close to some of the region’s leftist leaders. Meanwhile Maduro, who met with Francis at the Vatican when the dialogue effort kicked off, has long accused local bishops of siding with the opposition and ignoring the pope’s orders to build bridges.
A major turning point firmly aligning the Vatican and local prelates came during Holy Week in April, as protests were returning to Venezuela with a vengeance. A mob of government supporters stormed a church in downtown Caracas, roughing up worshippers and assaulting the capital’s archbishop, Cardinal Jorge Urosa, as he was delivering a sermon calling for the government to cease “the exaggerated repression” against anti-government protesters. Similar attacks have taken place elsewhere. One church in San Cristobal was vandalized with graffiti reading “Death to the Priests” and bearing the initials of the ruling socialist party.
Alarmed by the rising levels of violence amid protests that claimed 120 lives, local bishops took the unusual step of traveling to Rome to personally brief Francis on how bad the situation had become. The June visit was all the more significant because the bishops themselves initiated it instead of being invited by the Vatican, as is usually the case.
“Today in Venezuela, there’s no ideological conflict between left and right,” the bishops said in their greeting to Francis. “There’s a battle between a government that has become a dictatorship serving its own interests and an entire people who want freedom and are searching desperately, at the risk of their own lives, for bread, medicine, security, work, elections, freedom and autonomous political power.”
The lobbying appears to have paid off. In an Aug. 4 statement, the Vatican joined the U.S. and other foreign governments in condemning Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution as an illegitimate power grab, saying it was “fomenting a climate of tension and confrontation.” It demanded that all sides — “and in particular the government” — respect basic human rights and the Constitution, a clear sign that it was holding Maduro accountable.
But many Venezuelans would like Francis to go even further.
Angel Bastidas is among those aided by the Scalabrinian missionaries in Bogota. His eyes bloodshot from sleeping for the third straight night on the bus terminal’s soot-covered floors, the 25-year-old college graduate recalled how a third of the $750 in savings with which he hoped to rebuild his life abroad was stolen by Venezuelan national guardsmen while he and his friends were being frisked at a checkpoint near the border.
He was raised Catholic in the Andean city of Merida and said he is grateful for the church’s help. But he blames Francis for giving the government political oxygen and hopes he’ll take advantage of his trip to Colombia to send a clear message that he’s with the Venezuelan people against Maduro.
“Here are the consequences of a dialogue that should’ve never taken place,” said Bastidas. “Thousands of Venezuelans fleeing from their country.”
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome