CARACAS, Venezuela — On April 6, tens of thousands of protesters heeded opposition calls to march on Venezuela’s capital in what turned out to be a new chapter in the ongoing battle between the country’s Chavista regime and a growing number of the Venezuelan people.

This time, the march that blocked one of the main Caracas highways counted on the open support of the Catholic Church.

“The government’s decisions have grave consequences for the future of our country, and in order to make the rule of law prevail, protesting is a legitimate right,” the president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, Archbishop Diego Padrón Sánchez of Cumaná, said a day before the protests.

In fact, the Catholic Church, seen as the last institution that can prevent a violent confrontation between the opposition and the government of President Nicolás Maduro, has been moving from a politically neutral position to the support of what it believes to be “the cry of the Venezuelan people against the revolution.”

The socialist revolution in Venezuela is also known as Chavismo for its chief protagonist, Hugo Chávez, who ruled the country from 1999 until his death in 2013.

Chávez and his “21st-century socialism” became extremely popular in the oil-rich country, after taking advantage of the 2004 oil-price boom. The state’s subsequent largesse not only rewarded key constituencies such as the military and the ruling party, but dramatically reduced poverty in Venezuela, turning the charismatic Chávez into the folksy, ever-present character who won every important election held over 15 years, including a recall effort. During that period, he packed the courts and the military with party loyalists.

Following his death in 2013, Chávez’s close ally Nicolás Maduro was elected president, but he immediately faced the consequences of his lack of political charisma, growing state corruption, and, most importantly, the dramatic fall of oil prices in 2014.

 

The National Crisis

Venezuela has since lapsed into economic, social and political crisis. Heavily dependent on imports, the government could no longer afford the food and medicine that the country needed.

Currently, Venezuela has the world’s highest inflation rate, the second-highest murder rate in Latin America, and shortages that have pushed 83% of its population of 30 million below the poverty line.

The political opposition, who won two-thirds of the seats of Venezuela’s congress (known as the National Assembly) in December 2015, technically has the power to call a referendum to unseat Maduro — a move supported by the vast majority of Venezuelans. But the Maduro government has been able to throw numerous procedural roadblocks through the Supreme Court, which has struck down almost every measure the lawmakers have passed.

Late last month, after lawmakers tried again to push for free elections, the Supreme Court stripped the legislature of all of its powers, a move that sparked such an internal and international outrage that the members of the top court decided to walk back their decision only two days later.

But both the opposition and Church leaders denounced the reversal as “too little, too late.” For them, recent events prove there is no longer a real separation of powers in Venezuela and that the National Assembly is in reality powerless.

“The complete block of the National Assembly is a fact, and the totally abnormal situation of the economy clearly questions the idea that we are living in a democracy,” said the archbishop of Caracas, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, in statements given to the only remaining independent newspaper, El Nacional.

“Facts such as the cancellation of the [presidential] recall referendum, the problem [ousting] of the representatives from Amazonas state, the fact that the election of [state] governors has been postponed: All this sets up a dictatorship,” the cardinal said.

The country’s other cardinal, Archbishop Baltazar Porras Cardozo of Mérida, explained to El Nacional that the regime’s desire to have a Vatican mediation cannot move forward since Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin has clearly stated that a precondition for any Vatican assistance to the dialogue between the parties “is the guarantee of the National Assembly’s autonomy and power.”

Local Venezuelan media reported that Cardinal Parolin had sent a letter to Maduro in early December, requesting that Maduro allow free entry to humanitarian supplies, release political prisoners, schedule free elections, and restore all of the National Assembly’s authority.

 

‘An Invitation to Chaos’

In the meantime, the shortages have forced the government to ration every possible good, from electricity to food, medicines and toilet paper, while the opposition claims that government officials and their cronies have stolen more than $200 billion in food-import scams since 2003. The country’s inflation rate is expected to hit a crippling 1,600% this year.

“If this continues, it can be an invitation to chaos and disorder and provoke an unnecessary bloodbath,” warned Cardinal Porras. He fears fatigued and economically strapped Venezuelans, who expend their energies vying for subsidized products or struggling to find other ways to get by, may turn violently against a regime that seems already to be in survival mode.

According to the cardinal, “We have barely enough time to let the people decide their political future before things get really out of hand.”

 

Alejandro Bermudez is the Register’s Latin America correspondent.