WASHINGTON — During a Jan. 28 inflight press conference on his return from World Youth Day in Panama, Pope Francis was asked to offer explicit support to Venezuelan protesters calling for their country’s embattled President Nicolás Maduro to step down.
But the Pope replied that taking sides in the escalating confrontation between the Maduro regime and its opponents “would be a pastoral imprudence” and do “damage.”
“I suffer for what is happening in Venezuela right now,” said Francis, who repeated his call for a “just and peaceful solution.”
The Holy Father’s language frustrated human-rights advocates and others who see a fresh opportunity for democratic change in Venezuela and want world leaders — the Pope included — to pressure Maduro to abandon his fight to retrain power.
“What the good people of Venezuela hope for, and have a right to expect, is the moral and spiritual solidarity of the chief pastor of their Church, openly and fearlessly expressed, when they demand their liberties and the end of a criminal regime propped up by Cuba — another criminal regime,” veteran Church analyst George Weigel told the Register.
Locked in a brutal battle for survival, Maduro faces near-universal condemnation of his repressive tactics as a long-awaited end game appears to draw near. The country is in the middle of an economic and humanitarian crisis, and widespread hunger and rampant crime have forced an estimated 3 million people to flee their homeland.
But the danger and uncertainty that shadows this moment have also prompted some to defend Francis’ “careful” response as an exercise in prudence.
“Francis is right to be very careful about what he says,” said Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America.
If a peaceful transition to democratic rule becomes a real possibility, said Lewis, it “will mean both getting Maduro and some of his people out of the country and getting agreement among the important parties in the country to recognize an orderly process involving new elections.”
The Vatican and the bishops in Venezuela “could well play a role in this, but they must proceed very carefully.”
The recent fast-moving developments in Venezuela took off after President Maduro began his second term, on the basis of his claim to have won last May’s contested presidential election, prompting a fresh cycle of political protests and government reprisals.
On Jan. 25, Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, announced that he would serve as an interim president until free elections could be organized.
The Trump administration, and the majority of Latin American nations, endorsed Guaidó. Washington also imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, raising the stakes for a country that depends heavily on oil exports for foreign currency.
But Maduro still retains the loyalty of the intelligence and security services, bolstered by an estimated 15,000 Cubans who began working in Venezuela under the socialist government of Maduro’s predecessor, President Hugo Chavez, a close ally of the late Fidel Castro.
At present, it is not clear whether the military will continue to support Maduro. And that means he could respond to the recent threat to his political legitimacy by crushing dissent through intimidation and violence.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Venezuela’s military and security forces to “support democracy and protect all Venezuelan citizens.”
And this week the Venezuelan Catholic bishops’ conference called on the government to end its violent attacks on political protesters.
“Since Jan. 22 the repression and violence have been escalated by state security forces and armed bands against people civically protesting,” read a Jan. 29 statement issued by the Venezuelan episcopal conference’s justice and peace commission.
“The toll of injured, dead, arbitrarily detained, tortured and persecuted throughout the land violates the dignity and human rights of the citizens.”
The Church’s Efforts
The bishops’ statement marked the local Church’s ongoing campaign to defend human rights. And analysts emphasize that the Vatican has been well-informed on all the developments that led to the present crisis.
Most significantly, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, previously served as the papal nuncio to Venezuela. During his tenure, Cardinal Parolin became friends with Archbishop Baltazar Porras of Merida, the former president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference and an outspoken critic of Chavez; the archbishop once likened the national leader to Hitler and Mussolini. Archbishop Porras was named a cardinal in 2016 and is considered a close friend of Pope Francis.
In 2016, the Vatican helped to facilitate peace talks between Maduro and Venezuelan opposition leaders, with Tom Shannon, Washington’s chief Latin-America diplomat, and Unasur (The Union of South American Nations) also participating in the high-level discussions.
That effort ultimately failed. But the process helped to identify the preconditions for a resolution to the standoff between Maduro and opposition groups, said Rafael Luciani, a senior adviser to the Latin American Bishops’ Council (CELAM) and a Venezuelan-born theology professor at Boston College.
During an interview with the Register, Luciani noted that the principles worked out in the 2016 talks still apply for opposition groups and include recognition of parliament, the release of political prisoners, acceptance of humanitarian aid, and the scheduling of free and fair elections.
Luciani suggested that the Vatican’s support for these goals offered an implicit repudiation of the regime’s repressive policies.
The Pope’s Approach
Likewise, he argued that Pope Francis had signaled his true concerns and priorities regarding Venezuela during his recent trip to Panama for World Youth Day, but chose to operate behind the scenes or by adopting oblique terms.
First, the Pope met with Cardinal Porras.
The Holy Father “is very aware of what is happening now and the bishops’ position in Venezuela,” including their statement that framed the “current presidential term as illegitimate,” reported Luciani.
And before leaving Panama, the Pope offered specific comments, acknowledging that the people of Venezuela were facing “a serious situation” and that he was praying for an outcome “respecting human rights.”
Francis could not be more explicit “because it is not pastorally good on his part to take sides. His role is to make every effort possible to find a solution to the crisis,” added Luciani.
But many human-rights activists and some Latin American leaders have been frustrated by the Pope’s unclear comments and believe he has squandered his role as a moral leader.
And in a Jan. 6 letter to Pope Francis, 20 prominent Latin American leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, noted the “pastoral spirit” of his Christmas Day message urbi et orbi (“to the city of Rome and to the world”), which encouraged Venezuelans to “‘recover social harmony’ so as to ‘work fraternally’ toward the country’s development.”
But they also reminded the Pope that Venezuelans “are victims of oppression by a militarized narco-dictatorship which has no qualms about systematically violating the rights to life, liberty and personal integrity.”
With this painful reality in mind, the authors of the letter dismissed Francis’ “call for harmony” as an invitation for “victimized nations … [to] come to agreement with their victimizers.”
At this moment, clarity about the ideological roots and brutal record of the Maduro regime matters a great deal, say analysts, because it can inform the country’s direction and help secure a political framework that respects human rights and democratic freedoms.
Further, the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, once the most successful in Latin America, demands a rigorous analysis of the regime’s socialist policies, said CUA’s Lewis, who pointed to the writings of Pope St. John Paul II on free markets as an antidote to confusion.
“John Paul’s most important statement on these questions generally was in Centesimus Annus (1991),” said Lewis, and implicitly “contains the basis of a harsh criticism of the Venezuelan regime.” The government “destroyed the economy in part by destroying the market, which John Paul held should generally be free and a realm of free creative activity (33-34).”
John Paul also held “that state intervention should be limited and temporary,” added Lewis.
“But the state in Venezuela simply took over the society and the economy, and the result has been hyperinflation and massive poverty.”
“Tyranny,” Lewis concluded, “should be called by its name.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.