KEY WEST, Florida - On the way back from Thailand and Japan this week, Pope Francis turned his attention to upheaval in his home continent of Latin America, evocatively insisting that it’s currently in “flames,” largely due to what he called “weak governments” unable to bring peace.
The pope isn’t alone. As tensions mount and crises in individual countries gain force, bishops in the region are scrambling to keep things from spinning out of control.
Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte of Trujillo, Peru, president of the Episcopal Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM), has issued several statements over the past week urging both political leaders and citizens in the region to keep the peace.
As president of CELAM, Cabrejos said the organization is following “with great interest the recent events of political and social upheaval that are occurring in the region of Central America,” urging parties to “end all forms of violence, wherever it comes from, and to continue looking for paths of dialogue that will allow us to achieve permanent peace.”
These crises will undoubtably form part of the discussion during the Nov. 25-29 assembly of the Episcopal Secretariat of Central America and Panama (SEDAC), currently overseen by Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador, which is meeting in Heredia, Costa Rica. Some 60 bishops from Central America are participating, including the Vatican’s ambassador to the nation, Archbishop Bruno Musaró.
Cabrejos has urged all countries in Latin America facing upheaval to avoid violence and to pursue the common good.
In a statement issued last week titled “Walking together for the peace of our peoples,” Cabrejos expressed his closeness to Latin Americans experiencing “serious instability,” specifically citing Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
In recent weeks, “large citizen mobilizations have been happening, protesting inequalities and injustices which are the result of sin that has been institutionalized, turning its back to the poorest and most marginalized. These mobilizations on many occasions have been severely repressed,” he said.
Calling the uprisings “signs of the times,” he said there is an “urgent” need to discern paths of dialogue and peace while enacting a “radical” defense of human dignity and life.
Cabrejos said in late November that Nicaragua has suffered “too much pain,” and it’s not hard to understand why. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 328 people have been killed in recent months, more than 2,000 wounded, hundreds detained and some 88,000 have fled the country.
For more than a year and a half, Nicaragua has been plagued by violent uprisings after President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, who also acts as vice president, announced plans to cut pensions in a bid to save money while at the same time increasing employee contributions to the country’s social security system.
Protests immediately erupted, and while the government rescinded the proposal, opposition increased as more people took to the streets, leading to hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries in clashes between civilians and police and pro-government forces.
Catholic bishops in Nicaragua have attempted to open a dialogue with the government, yet many bishops and priests have been threatened or attacked as churches became a place of refuge for protesters. Last week, around a dozen hunger strikers were evacuated from a church as they demanded the release of relatives and loved ones jailed for taking part in protests.
In Bolivia, political unrest broke out last month after Evo Morales was elected to a fourth consecutive term as the country’s president, with opponents charging that the election had been rigged. Morales resigned Nov. 10 following weeks of riots, protests and police mutiny, which led to politician Jeanine Áñez Chávez stepping in as interim leader.
Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales said he was ousted by a “right-wing coup.” Since his resignation, supporters have launched massive protests in a bid to have him reinstated. On Nov. 20, Bolivia’s senate, with the support of Morales’s party, passed a draft law on holding new elections. The bill must now be approved by the country’s House of Representatives.
So far, an estimated 32 people have died in post-election violence, and Morales’s supporters have recently taken to the streets and put up dozens of roadblocks, causing shortages of certain food and fuel in some cities, and skyrocketing the price of basic food products.
The Bolivian bishops initially attempted to facilitate preliminary talks between both sides and have since backed the proposal for new elections, insisting that it’s the best way forward.
In Colombia, a new wave of protests flared up in Bogota Nov. 21, voicing strong opposition to President Ivan Duque Marquez’s conservative policies.
Marking the largest protest Colombia has seen in recent years, the unrest is not rooted in one single issue, but rather a shared sense of indignation at an increase in inequality and a perceived inability for the government to fight corruption.
A government proposal to slash salaries, pensions and the minimum wage likely won’t help, but will only exacerbate the inequalities and tensions that are driving the country’s latest bout of instability featuring protests in which security forces have used tear gas and other forceful methods to quell the crowds.
So far there has been at least one reported death, an 18-year-old high school student, among the estimated 250,000 anti-government demonstrators who took to the streets last week, including students, teachers and working-class union members.
Some six months ago, protests erupted in Haiti stemming from high inflation rates, a plan to increase fuel taxes and a collective sense of being fed up with government corruption.
Allegations emerged that the government had embezzled an estimated $2.3 billion from the Venezuelan oil program Petrocaribe. While the patronage agreement initially promised that the resale of Venezuelan oil would fund social programs and infrastructure in Haiti, the bulk of the money has not been accounted for.
The resulting protests have so far left 20 people dead, and there have been increasingly broad calls for the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse. Food shortages have also skyrocketed, worsening the country’s already stinging poverty rates.
Chile and Ecuador
In Chile, which is still reeling from what is quite possibly the Catholic Church’s most damaging sexual abuse scandals, demonstrations broke out Oct. 18 over a planned subway fare hike, sparking immediate uproar which quickly erupted into waves of protests punctuated by violence, prompting President Sebastián Piñera to declare a state of emergency and call in the armed forces in a bid to calm protesters by a show of force.
However, the move has been widely seen as reminiscent of the dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s-1990s, deepening the bad feelings already in play.
Since uprisings began, the Chilean government has been forced to call off both the Nov. 16-17 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Santiago and the Dec. 2-13 COP25 meetings will now take place in Madrid, while Piñera continues to scramble for proposed changes that will satisfy protesters’ demands.
In Ecuador, protests and riots exploded earlier this year over a proposed economic austerity package that would have raised fuel prices which have already seen a sharp increase in Ecuador. High gasoline and diesel prices are particularly hard on the country’s rural poor.
After the proposal was announced, indigenous communities in Ecuador opposed to the measure cut off roads and city streets in a bid to interrupt oil operations, and they ignited a series of protests that left some seven people dead and roughly another 1,000 other injured.
In October President Lenín Moreno and indigenous leaders struck a deal ending the riots in which Moreno agreed to withdraw from an International Monetary Fund-backed program that raised fuel prices, and indigenous leaders themselves agreed to call off protests.
On his home turf, Cabrejos has been battling months of political unrest after President Martín Vizcarra dissolved congress in October following months of deadlock, throwing the country into crisis as congress then moved to suspend the president, and the vice president quit.
Dominated by the opposition Popular Force party - led by Keiko Fujimori who was arrested on corruption charges in 2016 and whose father, ex-president Alberto Fujimori, is also in prison due to corruption - Peru’s congress has thwarted Vizcarra’s efforts to pass his anti-corruption legislation, prompting Vizcarra to invoke an article in the Peruvian constitution allowing the president to dissolve congress if it had twice voted ‘no’ in a ‘vote of confidence.’
Peru is marked by a decades-long history of corruption and political chaos. Among the most famed scandals is the Odebrecht fiasco, which resulted in the ousting of many of those who led Peru after the 1990-2000 authoritarian rule of President Alberto Fujimori.
In 2016, the Odebrecht company admitted in a plea bargain with the U.S. Department of Justice that it had paid some $800 million in bribes in 12 Latin American countries.
In the country’s most recent drama, Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal on Monday ordered Keiko Fujimori’s release from prison by a slim four to three vote, sparking protests throughout the Peruvian capital of Lima.
Facing allegations of money laundering and receiving illegal contributions from Odebrecht, Fujimori is not expected to take part in January elections despite her release, which supporters have rallied to celebrate and opponents have gathered to protest.
Scuffles broke out between police and Fujimori opponents after the vote, with some protesters throwing stones and bottles at officers, prompting police to break out their shields for protection and to push back against demonstrators.
In last week’s statement, Cabrejos stressed that “only with civic friendship and a commitment of solidarity, especially with the poorest and most excluded, can we face this crisis and move towards a more hopeful shared future. We should not lose heart in promoting dialogue in favor of living together, social peace and the common good.”
“Violence is not fought with violence,” Cabrejos said, adding, “to destroy our countries is not the right solution. It is time to act as brothers and not as enemies."