When the Jesuit and Argentinian cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was appointed Pope in 2013, it seemed that the Vatican was leaning toward a more liberal position. Indeed, the head of the Catholic Church has taken various bold positions which have irked the conservative forces in the Church most notably his increasing acceptance of the LGBT community. More significantly, the Pope has taken various stances on foreign affairs, and in one notable example, the Pope’s actions had an effective impact and this was in the peace process between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government.
The FARC communist rebels had been fighting the Colombian government for more than 40 years and the civil war had no end in sight as both the FARC and consecutive right-wing governments kept fighting each other with intransigent determination. There were many sociological and economic factors that sustained the FARC’s existence and both sides could have never gained an absolute military victory. This was a civil war fueled by the lack of rule of law, massive poverty, outright exploitation of farmers and peasants, and constant violence by paramilitaries and criminal gangs. The government could not gain the trust of millions of people on the fringe of society who had lived under the constant threat of violence and starvation for years on end. In vast swathes of the jungle area of the country, it was only the FARC that provided protection and civilian infrastructure.
The FARC was never an ideal progressive force and it perpetuated human rights abuses apart from being deeply involved in the drug trade to fund its operations. However, the FARC was so embedded in the society of many large-rural parts of Colombian society that it was practically impossible to make peace without going through the FARC. Literally, the FARC served as an alternative government for many rural and jungle parts of Colombian and ignoring it would have meant ignoring completely the societies which backed them.
The civil war came to end with a peace process piloted by the liberal Colombian statesman and Nobel Peace Laureate Juan Manuel Santos. The peace process was one of the most difficult peace agreements ever concluded in history. Not only was the peace process marred by a great distrust between both parties, but its fate was near collapsing as the majority of Colombians voted against the proposed peace agreement in a referendum in October 2016. Unsurprisingly, the majority of “Nos” came from the cities and areas which were not affected by the war. Santos was however backed by the international community. Literally, days later after the referendum result, Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize and soon later received the support of Pope Francis who urged Colombians to back Santos’ peace plan. Pope Francis had made an incredible interventionist feat that went against the political wishes of the majority of a predominantly Catholic country and he did this openly and explicitly. Santos went on to modify the peace agreement which was signed a month later after it was rejected by a referendum.
With his position on the Colombian peace plan, Pope Francis proved himself to be a force of good. In the Colombian debacle, Pope Francis risked losing many followers in Colombia which is predominantly a very conservative country. He didn’t shy away from taking an intransigent position to do what was right: to call for peace and an end to a senseless war despite the fact that many Colombians didn’t want to end it.
On Ukraine, the Pope is doing the same exact opposite that he did with regard to Colombia. Instead of taking the intransigent, unpopular, and uncompromising position which would lead to a logical and just peace, Pope Francis is trivialising the Russian invasion of Ukraine in a clear move not to alienate the Russians. Pope Francis didn’t mind risking losing the Colombian conservatives, so why is he so concerned about not offending the Russians? Here is the difference. The right thing to do about the Colombian peace process was to push it through despite the opposition by the majority of Colombians who voted in the referendum. In the Colombian case, there was no clarity on who was the aggressor and who was in the wrong morally and principally. With regards to Ukraine, we have a much more clear situation whereas Russia is the sole and exclusive aggressor in this conflict.
The right position on Ukraine would be to unconditionally condemn Russia’s invasion and demand that Russia pulls out of Ukraine. So, why is the Pope not taking this position?
I’m afraid that the Pope’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is clouded by his Latin American prejudice against the US and the Western alliance in general and he believes Russian propaganda that somehow Russia was provoked into this war. Latin Americans, rightfully so, have prejudices against the US due to a history of US intervention and aggressive military activity in their continent. It is also the same prejudice carried by many left-wing Latin American leaders like Brazillian President Lula. Unfortunately, this is a prejudice that will only wane down via new generations of people who will see history and the world differently from their parents and grandparents. It is in this context that one should read Pope Francis’ incorrect position on Ukraine.