As Venezuelans die every day for lack of food and medicine, the Vatican has been asked to consider a mediation role between the regime of President Nicolás Maduro and the Venezuela National Assembly, in which the opposition holds a majority. The question facing the Church, in both Venezuela and the Vatican, is whether she should aim for dialogue with the regime, or facilitate its removal from office. The matter is urgent, and lives are in the balance.
Venezuela is in a crisis. People line up for 16 hours to enter stores where there may not even be food to buy or basic hygienic supplies on hand. The massive economic disaster is the consequence of the depredations of the regime of the late Hugo Chavez, champion of crony communism. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, which means it takes some serious political wickedness to impoverish the people.
From 1999 to 2013, Venezuelan oil production fell 25%, as Chavez extended his authoritarian control over the national oil company. Corruption and lack of market accountability meant that Venezuelan oil production fell even as oil prices were rising. Even with oil at $100 per barrel, the declining production meant that Venezuela was in deficit, as Chavez ramped up spending on social programs and populist subsidies — gas was pennies a gallon.
By 2013, when Chavez died, Venezuela was already in a precarious economic state, which descended to crisis when oil prices declined in 2014. Faced with massive deficits, Venezuela began to print money, fueling hyperinflation and a collapse in the bolivar, which has lost more than 90% of its value against the dollar in the last two years. Drawing from the toolbox of central planning, Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, has established price controls, wage controls and currency controls.
Chavez fondly spoke of his “Socialism for the 21st Century.” It has produced the same results as when the Soviets tried it in the 20th century. Two years ago, there were already shortages of basic goods, most notoriously toilet paper. Now, there are food shortages, and shops of all kinds offer sparsely filled shelves. The government has predictably responded by introducing queue controls, only permitting people to queue up on certain days. The queues are so long that people now regularly pass out in them, having not eaten for days at a time.
Maduro, to avoid admitting that his regime has made a shambles of Venezuela, is refusing to permit foreign-relief agencies to brings goods into the country, preferring to let the patient die rather than admit the need for a doctor.
“Denying that there’s a crisis and refusing to let the world send medicine and food is not [permissible],” said Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, archbishop of Caracas. Catholic international relief agencies, including Caritas, have tried sending aid to Venezuela, but they have been blocked by the government.
The economic ruin of what should be a rich country has led to intense opposition demands for Maduro to go. In turn, he has resorted to emergency measures to preserve his hold on power. Church leaders have denounced widespread human-rights violations by the regime and an increasing lawlessness that is giving rise to brutal criminal assaults and organized crime.
The political standoff has proved an obstacle to any practical measures for relief, let alone reform, and so there have been calls for mediation between the Maduro regime and the opposition in the national assembly. In that context, it has been suggested that the Vatican might play the role of mediator, what with the first Latin-American pope and a secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who formerly served as apostolic nuncio in Venezuela.
The opposition first suggested a Vatican role, which was rejected by the regime, as both Chavez and Maduro have been hostile to the presence of the Church in Venezuela’s public life. Cardinal Urosa has not minced words in his condemnations of both Chavez and Maduro for their violations of religious and civil liberties. Yet, as the situation has become more dire, Maduro has signaled an openness to Vatican mediation.
Ernesto Samper, secretary general of the Union of South American Nations, said last week that it “had received agreement from both sides” for a Vatican role.
What kind of role will the Vatican play, should it get involved? Should it aim to assist the opposition in getting rid of Maduro as soon as possible and abandoning the ruinous “Chavismo” folly of central economic planning? Or should Vatican diplomacy aim at getting Maduro to agree to modest, immediate changes — such as allowing foreign aid to enter Venezuela — even if they make his position more secure? The Venezuelan bishops seem to be of the view that their role is not to help Maduro solve his immediate problems, but to help Venezuela rid itself of Maduro, who is the principal problem.
“[The government] has shown an inability to solve the country’s urgent problems,” Archbishop Diego Padrón Sánchez of Cumaná, president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, said when Catholic leaders met in Caracas in early July. “A government that fails to provide food and medicine to the people, and what’s more, has refused to allow religious or social institutions to lend their support to alleviate hardships and diseases, lacks the moral authority to call for dialogue and peace.”
All of this puts Pope Francis in a delicate position. On the one hand, if Vatican diplomacy might be able to alleviate immediate and urgent suffering, then it would appear necessary to employ it to that effect. On the other hand, can the first Latin-American pope help to secure in power a regime that has impoverished its people and aggravated their suffering by preventing the Church from performing the corporal works of mercy, feeding the hungry and caring for the sick? Is it possible to do the former while avoiding the latter?
Then there is the prophetic, or at least, rhetorical challenge. Pope Francis has written to Maduro about the situation, a private letter expressing his concern. But for a pope who has regularly delivered blistering attacks against an “economy which kills,” the situation in Venezuela would seem to call for just that — a thunderous papal denunciation of a regime that is literally starving its people in service of a leftist ideology.
The Holy Father has unique credibility in criticizing the “socialist” economics of Chavez/Maduro, as no one would confuse such a denunciation as simple ideological disagreement from a market conservative. Pope Francis has given extravagant Vatican welcomes to Latin America’s leading leftists, Cuba’s Raul Castro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Indeed, on his visit to Bolivia in 2015, he delivered a landmark speech denouncing the world economy root and branch. It was certainly received by Morales and others as general papal support for their brand of state-directed economic policy.
If Pope Francis does not denounce the starvation economics of Chavismo in Venezuela, his stinging critiques of the financial sector and open markets will lack credibility. The Holy Father risks exposing himself to the charge that he is inclined to see economics through an ideological lens, instead of an emphasis on people’s suffering as an example of how “reality is greater than ideas.” Yet at the same time, the Holy Father has to speak with caution, lest he inflame an already combustible situation.
In Venezuela, the Latin-American Pope does not have the option to take a pass. What the Vatican of Pope Francis will do is as yet unclear. The time for doing it, though, is running out.
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