Commemorazione di Belisario Betancur
Belisario Betancur, former member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences
February 4, 1923-December 18, 2018
Our colleague Belisario Betancur passed away in December 2018. He belonged to the group of scholars appointed by His Holiness John Paul II when he founded the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in 1994. He was 95 years old and, for a while, had not been able to attend our plenary sessions due to health problems. That is why many of our colleagues today never had the opportunity to meet him. Those of us who had the good fortune of knowing him were able to enjoy his wisdom, forged especially in the field of politics, where he became President of Colombia between 1982 and 1986. Those who understood his brilliant Spanish enjoyed it the most, because, like several of his compatriots, he had an exceptional command of it.
He was born in Amagá, province of Antioquia, in 1923. After studying law at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana de Medellín, he graduated as a Doctor of Law and Economics with a thesis on “Economic public order”. Later he would obtain a Doctorate Honoris Causa in Humanities from the Universities of Colorado and Georgetown. He got married in 1945 with Rosa Helena Álvarez, who died in 1998, with whom he had three children: Beatriz, Diego and María Clara.
That same year, 1945, he began his political career as a member of the Assembly of Antioquia with the Conservative Party, reaching the House of Representatives in 1950. After four years as a member of the National Constituent Assembly (1953-57), he was Minister of Labor and Social Security (1963), Senator and Ambassador to Spain. After being defeated by Julio César Turbay in the 1978 presidential elections, he won them in 1982.
The main focus of his government was the pacification of his country, which at the time, and for a long time, was one of the most violent in Latin America. From the beginning of his government, Belisario Betancur raised the need to initiate a peace process and to execute a political reform that facilitated dialogue with the guerrillas and other illegal groups in order to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict. With this objective, he promoted an amnesty project before Congress, which became law at the end of 1982. His Peace Process resulted in the signing of the “Acuerdos de la Uribe” peace agreement, signed by a Peace Commission on behalf of the government, and by the General Staff of the FARC-EP guerrillas. On March 28, 1984, the FARC ordered a ceasefire on its 27 guerrilla fronts, while President Betancur ordered the same to all civilian and military authorities in the country. This did not mean the end of secular political violence in Colombia, but it clearly was an initial first step, whose fruits can still be seen, thirty-five years later.
In this endeavor he encountered many difficulties. The main one was in November 1985, when the Palace of Justice was taken by a commando of the M-19 guerrilla movement, allegedly because of a violation of the ceasefire. Betancur refused the demands of the guerrilla group and commanded the recovery of the Palace by the army, with a balance of more than one hundred victims. Incredibly, the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted a few days later, producing an avalanche that destroyed the town of Armero, Tolima, killing approximately 31,000 people. Also, under his presidency Colombia became the first and so far the only country to renounce being the host of the Soccer World Cup. President Betancur was convinced that the government he presided had other priorities, linked mainly to the fight against poverty. After his presidency in 1986, he ended his political career.
Betancur was also an active writer and journalist. Among his works it is possible to find stories, poetry and essays on public policies, all in Spanish. Many of the last ones are related to the topics of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Some examples are Basis for a national government. Colombia face to face (1961); Image of social change in Colombia (1966); Despite Poverty (1967); From Misery to Hope and Foreign Aid (1970); Colombia Awake (1970); Populism (1970); The Other Colombia (1975); Money, Prices and Wages (1975); Christ of development (no date); The commitment to peace: report to the Congress of Colombia 1982-1986 (1986); and, finally, Language as an expression of the history of Antioquia (1991).
Among his last public activities, his designation stands out, on the part of the Secretary General of the United Nations, as a member of the Truth Commission of El Salvador, which he chaired (1993).
Among his other awards, two are particularly significant. One is the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, because of his commitment to the permanent values of the spirit and culture, to which he devoted his best efforts, embodied in his recognized intellectual work and, on the other hand, his vigorous and determined public life, constantly directed to the defense of Colombian democratic institutions. The other important prize was the XXI Menéndez Pelayo International Prize, for his contributions to the causes of education and peace. Finally, besides being a member of our Academy, he was also a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts; of the Colombian Academies of Language, Jurisprudence and History; and of the Mexican Academy of Language.
In short, perhaps the highlight of his career was his commitment to the task of bringing the ethics and values of Christianity to real public life. It is a hard task, because errare humanum est. However, it can be said without a doubt that Belisario Betancur fulfilled it with a broadly favorable result.
Juan J. Llach