By Vatican News staff writer
Several weeks after Colombians first took to the streets to protest against a botched tax overhaul and other issues, including the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, tensions are still high in the country amid efforts to reach an agreement between the government and the growing chorus of voices of the disgruntled citizens.
Last Friday, the city of Cali witnessed scenes of horror as 14 people were killed and about 98 others injured by firearms during violence that erupted while demonstrations were taking place to commemorate a month of the protests which began on 28 April. Reports say that more than 50 people have died since the wave of protests began to sweep across the South American nation.
In light of the unsettling situation, Bishop Elkin Fernando Álvarez Botero, secretary-general of the Bishops’ Conference of Columbia (CEC),and Bishop of Santa Rosa de Osos, spoke to Vatican News in an interview, reflecting on the situation of unrest caused by the demonstrations.
Reason for the protests
Providing some context to the protests, Bishop Álvarez explained that they were sparked by an attempted government move to raise taxes, which was later withdrawn. Nonetheless, citizens have seized the opportunity to demand attention for other social issues that have been previously neglected by the President Iván Duque Márquez-led administration.
He notes that there have been continuous demonstrations since protesters first began. Colombians have aired their grievances in major cities like Valle del Cauca, Cali in Cauca, Popayán, Medellín and also in the capital Bogotá.
Importance of dialogue
Amid the complex situation, Bishop Álvarez highlights that efforts at dialogue are being made and the Church is playing an important role to ensure a continuous openness to reach agreements between the people and the government.
The Bishop further notes that the Church, together with the United Nations, insists on the need for dialogue. For their part, the Bishops of Columbia have reiterated Pope Francis’ call in Fratelli tutti, reminding all that in the face of these social problems, there is always the possibility to choose dialogue as opposed to selfish indifference or violent reactions.
To do this, he stressed the importance of attending to the legitimate concerns that have arisen during the protests with an openness to encounter and understand each other.
“We have also insisted that in this dialogue lies the hope of being able to find points of contact that will lead us to reconciliation and a commitment to peace,” he said.
On Sunday, thousands of people participated in a “silent march” in Bogotá to demand an end to violence during ongoing protests. Participants expressed support for police and condemned acts of vandalism and roadblocks that have prevented the arrival of supplies to cities.
Giving a soul to the economy
Responding to a question about the economic challenges in the country, Bishop Álvarez explained that in a message from the Bishops at the start of the protests, they reiterated Pope Francis’ appeal to “give a soul to the economy of today.”
He went on to stress that inspired by the principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which can guide the economy toward the common good, the necessity comes to the fore to provide equal access to goods and basic services in order to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in the country.
“It is true that all the problems behind these protests are not of an economic nature, but they touch strongly on the economy,” he said.
Therefore, “it is very important to listen to this call of the Pope because it is precisely what is the basis for a path of national reconstruction,” so that the country “can be a home and a homeland for all.”
On the path towards peace
Speaking further on Colombia’s efforts on its path to peace, Bishop Álvarez noted that the implementation of the agreements of a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) guerrillas is moving forward.
In 2016, thousands of FARC rebels laid down their arms under a historic peace agreement that ended 52 years of fighting in the country.
He added that the current situation urges all to broaden their perspectives and to move forward more quickly in the implementation of these agreements, including seeking peace with other sectors.
Protests amid the pandemic
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic which has affected over three million Colombians and has caused the deaths of over 89,000, Bishop Álvarez expresses concern that the demonstrations have led to a rise in infections.
He highlights the strain Covid-19 has put on the health sector, especially in large cities where there are not enough beds for Covid-infected patients. On top of this, he points to the suffering and fatigue of medical personnel and healthcare workers who have to take care of the sick.
“We hope that all this can be resolved, respecting the right to peaceful demonstration, which must always be recognized and guaranteed, but bearing in mind that we are living a critical scenario with respect to the pandemic, and that calls us to take care of life, our own and that of others."