ROME — “We are prayerful; we are ready for uncertain times.”
This was the brief response Cardinal Jorge Urosa Sabino, archbishop of Venezuela, gave to the Register early today in Rome in reaction to the news that the charismatic and controversial Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez had finally succumbed to cancer.
Cardinal Urosa, who is in Rome to participate in the conclave, also announced that he will celebrate in Rome “a public Mass to pray for the eternal repose of President Chavez.”
The death of Chavez was announced March 5 by Venezuela Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Military troops were immediately deployed in the country’s major cities, but most of the people who took to the streets were there to mourn Chavez’s death.
A former paratrooper who led a failed coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992, Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998. He subsequently introduced a new constitution that extended presidential terms, allowed re-election and altered the structure of the government. In 2000, he won re-election.
During his first two years of government, Chavez seemed very close to the Catholic Church: As a divorcee who could not take Communion, he nevertheless devoutly participated at major Catholic events, took on the bishops’ call for major economic reforms to reduce poverty in the oil-rich country and was outspoken in protecting the unborn and traditional marriage.
But after his re-election in 2000, as he became more popular, he also became more eager to control the different branches of power.
The Venezuelan bishops, worried that Chavez’s power-grabbing maneuvers could mean the end of South America’s longest democracy, started criticizing some of his decisions.
Chavez’s reaction was brutal. He redirected all state funds that were traditionally sent to Church institutions that helped the poor and provided free education to newly created state-run “revolutionary” alternatives.
“He is a narcissist; he can’t handle being criticized,” explained Venezuelan psychiatrist Eduardo Chirinos, who treated him after his failed coup attempt in 1992. “And his ego soars with oil prices,” he added in a 2011 interview published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
In fact, fueled by the large revenue generated from oil prices, Chavez introduced a series of socialist reforms that he called “Bolivarian,” named after Venezuela’s liberator from Spanish rule, Simon Bolivar.
Chavez’s revolution included nationalizing key industries, worker-managed cooperatives and the expropriation of farming land.
Internationally, he became the most prominent regional adversary of the United States by allying himself with the Cuban regime and the socialist governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
Chavez not only provided much-needed, below-market-priced oil to Cuba, he also established several international alternatives to U.S.-led organizations, like a regional bank and a “Revolutionary” international TV network.
His $4-billion investment in social programs reduced Venezuelan poverty in half; but it also created a large network of corruption, state inefficiency and an unprecedented crime wave.
Chavez was able to subvert almost every organization inside Venezuela, except for the Church, for which he reserved his most colorful language. In 2008, he called Cardinal Urosa “a troglodyte” and warned the Vatican that, as long as the cardinal remained as archbishop of Caracas, “I will remain very far away from the Church.”
That same year, in one of his weekly, hours-long telecasts, Chavez said that the pope “is no ambassador of Jesus on earth, because the true Jesus is in the people and in those of us who fight for justice and the liberation of the meek.”
But in 2011, Chavez’s seemingly unstoppable rise hit a brick wall: cancer. Although his ailment’s nature and gravity were never revealed, a visibly bald and swollen Comandante returned in April from secretive cancer treatment in Cuba, requesting a Mass at the Venezuelan shrine of El Nazareno.
In front of the shrine’s centuries-old crucifix, Chavez pleaded, “God don’t take me away now. I have much to do for this people. Give me your crown, Jesus; give me your crown since I am ready to bleed. Give me your cross, a hundred crosses, and I will carry them; but please give me life.”
It was also known that Venezuela’s foreign office lobbied hard to get Pope Benedict XVI to privately and confidentially bless Chavez during the Pope’s 2012 trip to Cuba. The meeting never happened.
That same year, during Holy Week, Chavez requested a Mass and anointing of the sick from Cardinal Urosa. During the Mass, Chavez read the first reading and said: “Deep inside, I am still the humble altar boy I once was.” He also praised the cardinal for his “pastoral kindness.”
On Oct. 7, 2012, Chavez won the presidential election for a fourth time and was elected to another six-year term.
According to the Venezuelan Constitution, Chavez was supposed to have been sworn in on Jan. 10, 2013, but, because of his frailty, the members of the Supreme Court, all appointed by Chavez, granted him the non-existent position of “president in absence.”
Before departing to Havana for further treatment on Dec. 10, Chavez signaled that Vice President Maduro, loyal to Chavez since the beginning of his political career, should be the man to succeed him.
“If something happens to me, in the scenario of new presidential elections, I ask you to vote for Nicolas Maduro; I ask you from the bottom of my heart,” Chavez said in what would be his last public appearance.
After returning to Caracas, he remained away from the public; on Feb. 18, he tweeted: “I remain holding Christ and trusting my doctors and nurses. We will live, and we will prevail!”
Returned to the Sacraments
At 4:15pm on Tuesday, March 5, the death of Chavez was confirmed.
A source from the Catholic Church in Venezuela told the Register on the condition of anonymity that Chavez died as “a practicing Catholic, assisted by the sacraments, which he constantly requested in the last period.”
Chavez’s legacy, nevertheless, will not finish with his funeral on March 8.
“Many doors are opened, and there are many uncertainties about the near future for our country,” said Maria Denisse Capriles, a political analyst and editor of the Catholic weekly magazine Entrelineas, in an interview with the Register.
“We may be able to see national reconciliation and a positive transition as long as we remain peaceful and far from over-the-top reactions,” she added.
“That is the key issue: national unity,” Bishop Jesus Gonzalez de Zarate Salas, the secretary general of Venezuela’s conference of Catholic bishops, told the Register. “In this moment of grief and confusion for many, we have to be united to pray and contribute to national unity.”
There is, in fact, uncertainty. The more extreme wing of Chavez’s followers claims that Maduro should complete the late Comandante’s term without elections.
Nevertheless, the fact that the speaker of the House, Diosdado Cabello, has formally taken power indicates that, most probably, the Constitution will be followed and new elections will be called in a month.
And Cardinal Urosa, in Rome to take part in the conclave that will elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, hopes things will proceed in this lawful manner.
Said the cardinal, “Before the total absence of the president of the republic, it is necessary for all branches of power to apply the mechanism contemplated by our constitution.”
Alejandro Bermudez is the Register’s Latin America correspondent.
He filed this report from Rome.