April 6-9, 1999
A USCC delegation consisting of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Chairman of the USCC Committee on International Affairs, and Bishop Thomas Wenski, Consultant, NCCB Committee on the Church in Latin America, paid a brief visit to the Colombian cities of Bogotá, Pereira, and Armenia in early April, at the invitation of the Colombian Episcopal Conference (CEC). The delegation was staffed by Thomas Quigley, Office of International Justice and Peace.
Background: Last September, Archbishop Pedro Rubiano Sáenz of Bogotá, Primate of Colombia, and Archbishop Juan Francisco Serasti of Ibagué, CEC Vice President, visited Washington to meet with church, academic and political leaders to speak about the serious crises and the new opportunities facing Colombia today. At their meeting at USCC, the bishops urgently requested a USCC visit to Colombia as an expression of concern and solidarity.
Responding to a confirming letter of invitation from Archbishop Alberto Giraldo Jaramillo, CEC President, Bishop Pilla asked Archbishop McCarrick to follow through with the visit. Because of an existing commitment by Archbishop McCarrick to participate in a CELAM seminar on Church in the Megalopolis scheduled for Bogotá April 9-11, it was decided to combine the trips and schedule the solidarity visit just prior to the CELAM seminar.
Goals of the Visit: What the Colombian bishops especially wanted to express was the initiative taken by the Church to press for peace and a resolution of the internal conflict that has wracked that society for four decades. In 1995, the Church organized a broad-based National Conciliation Commission (Comisión de Conciliación Nacional), by far the most important non-governmental forum for promoting dialogue and rapprochement among all parties of the conflict. It arranged several early meetings with the guerrilla leadership, securing some initial concessions from them. With the 1998 election of Miguel Pastrana as President, and his commitment to the same principles and course of action, prospects for an eventual peace began to be thinkable.
Midway between the two visits, however, a new tragedy struck much of Colombia, the powerful earthquake of January 25, 1999. The USCC visit, then, took on the added character of an expression of solidarity especially with the dioceses most affected by the disaster, those of Pereira and Armenia.
April 6: Arriving that evening, the delegation was taken to the headquarters of CELAM where housing was arranged.
April 7: The following morning, after Mass with Msgr. Cristián Precht of CELAM, there were extended meetings at the headquarters of the Episcopal Conference with the CEC leadership, including Archbishops Rubiano and Saraste, Bishop Luis Gabriel Romero of Facatativá, CEC General Secretary, Fr. Jorge Martínez Restrepo, the National Conciliation Commission General Secretary, and Lic. Miguel Ceballos, former CCN Executive Secretary. Following lunch, a short flight to Pereira where the rest of the day was spent with Bishop Fabio Suescún and key staff, Fr. Ruben Darío Jaramillo of Caritas and Dra. Gloria Amparo of CEPS, touring many of the most damaged areas and meeting with persons of the diocese. That evening the bishops concelebrated Mass with the Neo-Catechumenate movement where the packed cathedral warmly applauded the U.S. delegation's expression of solidarity with the local Church.
April 8: By auto with Bishop Suescún and Dr. Amparo to a retreat house on the outskirts of Armenia which serves as the diocesan curia whose offices had been totally destroyed. Bishop Roberto López Londoño and his pastoral vicars for education, social pastoral and Caritas gave an overview of the destruction experienced especially in Armenia, and then drove us through areas of extraordinary devastation. While Pereira had suffered a major quake in 1995, most of the re-built structures there were largely seismic-proof. Armenia, on the other hand, rarely experienced serious quakes, its buildings were less prepared, and thus suffered the greatest damage and nearly 1,000 deaths. Some 70 church-related buildings in the diocese were destroyed or severely damaged. We passed one building where a woman university professor, close to the diocese, had lived; the building collapsed while she was on the third floor and was, miraculously, able to walk out unharmed on the ground floor.
Unknown to the delegation before we arrived in Bogotá, the Armenia pastoral team had planned for us to spend the whole day there and had arranged a fairly elaborate schedule. Because we had a previously arranged lunch meeting with Archbishop Giraldo, CEC President, together with Archbishop Rubiano and Bishop Romero at Archbishop Rubiano's residence, plus a meeting later that afternoon with U.S. Ambassador Curtis Kammen, we regretfully had to cut our time in Armenia short and fly back to Bogotá. Following these meetings, we met that evening with Archbishop Oscar Rodríguez, President of CELAM, Bishop Emilio Carlos Berlié of Merida, Mexico and member of the CELAM executive committee, and Fr. Leonidas Ortiz, director of CELAM's theological institute, ITEPAL.
April 9: Bishop Wenski and Mr. Quigley left at dawn for the airport; Archbishop McCarrick stayed for the CELAM seminar on the Church in the Megalopolis.
- The "Official" Peace Process. Central to the purpose of the visit was the question of the recently begun peace process or, more accurately, the initial steps toward a possible peace process, and the role of the Church in furthering it. Through the CCN, the Church had facilitated some meetings with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the largest of the several guerrilla groups operating in over half the national territory, especially in the south, and with the ELN (the Army of National Liberation), the second largest group which operates mainly in the northeast oil areas near the Venezuelan border, resulting in a meeting with their leadership at a monastery near Mainz, co-sponsored by the German Bishops' Conference.
The Church, as the most trusted institution in the country, was able--as the weakened government of Ernesto Samper was not--to take these initiatives that the whole nation favored and that the guerrillas seemed prepared to risk. The Pastrana government is committed to pursuing dialogue with the guerrillas, although there is so far little to show for any of these efforts. The guerrillas have continued to wage an aggressive war against government troops and against the para-militaries who are the third armed group that makes peace efforts extremely difficult. The para-militaries were formed as local self-defense groups, armed by the government supposedly to protect themselves against the guerrillas but have in fact become the ruthless agents of the large landowners, charged with many of the worst human rights violations in the country, often aimed at innocent civilians thought to be sympathetic to the guerrillas.
According to the bishops, the guerrillas--unreconstructed old-style Marxists--believe that the government is weak and that they can negotiate an arrangement that will eventually allow them to assume a degree of power. The FARC, largely campesino based, has in the bishops' view little ideology other than gaining power. The ELN, founded by a Spanish priest inspired by Camilo Torres and the Cuban revolution, is drawn more from university and industrial workers, and has a strong social justice orientation. Both are well armed and equipped, with substantial treasuries derived from ransom paid from kidnappings and from the "tax" they impose on the coca growers, processors and drug traffickers.
Views differ on the importance of the Mainz meeting although the bishops tend to see it in positive terms. A secret accord was signed whose most important part, according to the bishops, was the first sentence saying that "The ELN agrees to begin a peace process." When the Spanish press leaked the story, the ELN disavowed it, but the bishops are still hopeful. Yet as Archbishop Rubiano says, one can't negotiate with promises but only with concrete deeds.
- The Church's Peace Process: Apart from such dramatic events as the Mainz meeting, the Church in Colombia is engaged in a range of activities promoting peace. The Church has made clear, well before Pastrana's election, that only a policy of dialogue can make any headway; the guerrillas cannot be defeated militarily. Especially through the programs of Caritas and Msgr. Fabio Henao, they are engaged in a long-term pedagogical task of building a culture of peace, carrying out workshops in every region of the country on issues as diverse as family violence, human rights and the drug trade. The annual Way of the Cross (which CRS has helped to fund), held in different departments each Holy Week, have been very successful in deepening popular awareness of the need for non-violent resolution of today's conflicts, including awareness that deep social reforms have to accompany any process of peace with the guerrillas.
- U.S. Policy Issues: In meetings with the bishops and with Ambassador Kammen, several points were highlighted. The Ambassador described the Church as the most trusted group in the country (including among the guerrillas who generally trust noone) and his relations with the bishops seem better than his predecessor's. Regarding the drug issues, the bishops praise the U.S. apparent shift from a policy of crop eradication (although fumigation clearly continues), and its new emphasis on crop substitution. Kammen's previous experience as ambassador to Bolivia provides some guidance on developing needed infrastructure (roads, etc.) and alternate cropping. The bishops are concerned with the ecological impact of the chemicals used and the resultant movement of the coca growers ever deeper into the jungle. The bishops stress that "drug abuse in the U.S. cannot be solved simply by controlling illegal cultivation in Colombia" and observe that "part of the cost of U.S. cocaine goes to the Colombian guerrillas" through the narco-taxes they collect.
On the question of U.S. military aid, perhaps the most contested issue in Washington, the bishops appear to be more concerned with the proliferation of weapons in private hands, the "comercio de armas" which the Synod for America deplored. This trade is "very substantial, is constantly growing and generates much violence," say the bishops.
The bishops stress that for the peace process, international public opinion is extremely important and that the guerrillas especially care about U.S. opinion. Thus visits of this type, and the recent visit of European parliamentarians organized by Caritas, are most valuable. On the nettlesome issue of the School of the Americas, discussed both with the ambassador and the bishops, there was consensus that, on balance, it is desirable for the Colombian military to have direct, personal contact with their U.S. counterparts.
Conclusion: The Colombian bishops seemed genuinely grateful for the visit, brief as it was, and look forward to opportunities for future collaboration. The bishops of Pereira and Armenia were especially grateful for the help provided by the Church in the U.S., including the archdioceses of Newark and Miami, as well as Bishop Fiorenza's expression of concern and solidarity following the earthquake. All recognize the influence of U.S. policy toward Colombia, and while the present policy seems improved from previous times, the bishops look for our aid in interpreting their concerns to the U.S. administration. Colombia continues to be wracked by an extraordinary mix of problems, "plagues" as the bishops term them: an intractable forty-year guerrilla war, an assortment of equally vicious and heavily armed para-military bands, an entrenched and growing narcotraffic criminal enterprise, and an economic crisis marked by massive unemployment and extreme poverty for millions. But there is also a sense that a corner is being turned and that the overall situation can improve. We have the impression of a mobilization for peace on the part of the whole Church in Colombia.