Ambassador gives a behind-the-scenes look at the negotiations that ended more than a half century of war.
Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to Colombia “will be a success,” says Guillermo León Escobar, the Colombian ambassador to the Holy See.
This is the word from a front-row witness who knows how carefully the trip was planned in the to-and-fro along diplomatic channels between Rome, Vatican City, and Bogotá.
Underneath it all is Pope Francis’ determination to help Colombia reach peace, and the “silent role” of the Holy See in the agreements with the FARC guerrillas negotiated in Havana.
Regarding the pope’s journey, the ambassador said that “failure is an orphan, and success has many parents.”
The Pope and peace in Colombia
“From the moment I presented my credentials on April 25, 2015, Pope Francis expressed his great interest in visiting Colombia, and his affection for the country; not rhetorically, but sincerely,” the ambassador said.
Pope Bergoglio shared with León Escobar his concern for the country and his conviction that “the secret to true peace” resides in “respect for human rights.” These are words inspired by John Paul II’s 1999 Message for the World Day of Peace.
Thus, “there is one right above other rights, and that is the right to peace.” In accordance with this principle, in Bogota in 1986 John Paul II had pleaded for peace in Colombia and the end of the guerrilla warfare.
The Church in Colombia
In the case of the local Church, there was unity in diversity, “as a whole, respecting the individual opinions within the country, [which disagree on some aspects] but which are united in their desire for the pope to come to Colombia,” he emphasized.
What we can be sure of, he added, is that Francis “will certainly want to say things that make people comfortable, as well as things that make them uncomfortable” each of the dozen times he will speak in public, including speeches, homilies, and greetings.
“There is a very important axis (for peace) in Latin America: Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina. If this axis doesn’t work, forgive me, but the countries in the region will not be able to stay on safe paths for their future,” commented the diplomat, whose qualifications on the topic are clear; he was a professor of political sociology at the Pontifical Gregorian University until 2013.
War in Colombia: One hundred years of solitude
“In addition, the pope was enormously concerned” by the fact that the people of Colombia have been suffering from “violence that has such a remote origin; 60 years of subversive, ideological violence, which replaced another previous 40 years of violence among the political parties. Added together, we have the ‘Hundred Years of Solitude’ of Gabriel García Márquez,” he noted, referring to the most famous work of the renowned Colombian author and winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in literature.
“The pope said that this journey is important.”
As far as Francis’ meeting with the Colombian president, the ambassador described it as “outside of any protocol.” It was July 15, 2015, when the pope received the president in the pope’s private library, where they conversed alone for 20 minutes. The pontiff told the Colombian president, “You are the person for whom I have prayed most: I pray much, very much, for the peace process.”
“That’s why I’m here: to ask for your help,” Santos replied. “Then, the pope decided to help; ‘help’ in quotes, because it was very respectful and didn’t supplant either of the protagonists,” he commented.
The silent work of the Holy See
How did this help play out? “The Holy See’s protocol is very careful and discreet. You don’t even notice when they are getting involved, but there’s no question: they are involved,” the diplomat repeated.
“Without a doubt,” he continued, “during the conversations in Cuba (at the negotiating table between the government and the FARC), one of the places where the most information was available was here (in Rome), and the information was extremely important, because there (in Cuba) the Nuncio is Giorgio Lingua.”
“Bishop Lingua (former nuncio in Iraq and Georgia) knew all the people who were directing the guerrilla forces in Colombia,” since “he had already participated, in the year 2000, in some meetings we had here in Rome with the FARC general command, authorized by John Paul II; some day, that history will be written.”
Consequently, “the Holy See was always aware of what was happening in Cuba, of what was being discussed. The Vatican had a direct line that allowed it to have a clear and complete analysis of the situation, so it could provide—in quotes—’help.'”
He insisted that the Holy See’s contribution to the events leading up to the agreement with the FARC “should not be underestimated one iota.”
That is to say, “it was quietly present with the intelligence that comes from silence that has been kept wisely during nearly 1500 years of political administration.”
It should be mentioned that the Holy See decided not to have a representative at the negotiating table in Cuba.
“It wasn’t present at the table, it wasn’t official; the Holy See managed information. Questions arrived, and doubtlessly, answers and opinions were sent in reply,” he affirmed.
The Holy See “acted with the necessary precaution so that the protagonists wouldn’t feel that their role was being invaded. I have never witnessed the Secretariat of State commit a political impertinence,” he commented.
“The Secretariat of State is a multinational intelligence agency,” he said, referring to its network of nunciatures, parishes, and communities throughout the world.
Regarding the current situation in Colombia, the peace agreements signed in Cartagena on September 26, 2016 asked the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to lay down their arms.
In February of 2017, after four years of dialogue in Cuba between the government of President Santos and the FARC, the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America, a law was approved by the Congress implementing the peace agreements, which were reached in Havana and signed in Cartagena on September 26, 2016.
On June 27, 2017, the FARC finished handing over their arms in Mesetas, Meta. The UN’s mission in Colombia certified having received 7,132 weapons.