CARACAS, Venezuela—Andrés Pastrana and Hugo Chávez have a lot in common. They both won landslide elections to become president at critical times of their respective, side-by-side countries. And both men are Catholic.

But their similarities stop there.

In the first year of office, each has begun to forge a very different type of relationship with the Catholic Church, prompting a situation that promises to keenly test the role of the Church in Latin America.

Pastrana, whose father was a past president of Colombia, is regarded as a smooth-mannered politician who owes much to the democratic traditions of his country. He has sought out a high degree of Church cooperation so far in his term.

Venezuela's Chávez, in contrast, comes from a poor family. As a colonel of the Venezuelan army he once attempted a coup against the region's oldest democracy. He still dons military fatigues occasionally. And he has so far worked directly against Church policies in his term.

Despite their differences, the two men are on friendly terms. When they met during Pastrana's official visit to Venezuela, they agreed to ease old tensions on their shared border in order to concentrate on their own problems: in Colombia, guerrilla violence and drug trafficking; in Venezuela, economic crisis and social unrest.

Chávez — divorced, remarried and barred from the sacraments — announced that he was a “practicing Catholic” after he was elected. He asked Archbishop Ignacio Velasco of Caracas to celebrate a Mass before his installation, an unusual move in Latin America, which is squeamish about church-and-state ties.

Moreover, during the installation, Chávez again proclaimed his Catholic identity, this time adding he was also “pro-life.”

A more discreet personality, Colombia's Pastrana has never made a public statement about his faith. It is well-known that he comes from a long-standing Catholic family — and rather than speak about his Catholic identity, Pastrana had a chapel built at his campaign's headquarters, and let it be known that he prayed a noon Angelus and 6 p.m. rosary with campaign employees there daily.

Pastrana's installation was attended by a significant Church presence: two Colombian cardinals at the Vatican, Prefect of the Congregation of Clergy Darío Castrillón and President of the Council for the Family Alfonso López Trujillo, shared privileged places with Colombian bishops.

Sterilizing the Poor

After those first moments of their respective rules, Pastrana and Chávez quickly separated ways in their relationships with the Catholic Church.

Early in February, Chávez announced the Bolivar 2000 a national mobilization campaign to fight poverty.

Bolivar 2000, named in honor of Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar, has mobilized military forces and state officials to improve food production and distribution, health care and the renewal of infrastructure such as roads, bridges and power lines. The Catholic Church initially supported the project. But then the director of maternity services in Caracas, Dr. Carlos Cabrera, announced that new “improved” health services to low-income mothers will include sterilization. Cabrera said the decision to include sterilizations came from Chávez early on when he launched Bolivar 2000.

Shortly thereafter, Bishop Hernan Sánchez, secretary-general of the Venezuelan Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the Church's decision to fight against the surprise policy.

Bishop Sánchez expressed the frustration of the Venezuelan episcopate with the policy, “launched under the government of a president that, on his installation day, proclaimed himself ‘pro-life’ and ‘Catholic.’”/p>

Of the sterilizations he said, “Any mutilation, when not prescribed for a vital therapeutic reason, is immoral. It is made even worse when it is officially promoted by the government.”

The bishop said that “each official birth-control campaign targeting the poor always ends up creating more injustice by violating the human rights of the defenseless.”

According to Provive, the largest Venezuelan Catholic pro-life group, the country has one of the lowest rates of inhabitants per square mile and the highest average income in Latin America. “In this moment of deep social crisis, this anti-birth policy is not only inconvenient but unacceptable,” Provive said in a statement.

Chávez has not taken responsibility for the sterilization campaign, and at this writing he has not answered the bishops’ complaints.

Seeking the Bishops'Help

Meanwhile, in Colombia, Pastrana has gained a reputation for operating quietly rather than with splashy initiatives like Bolivar 2000. He also is working closely with the Church.

His challenge: to deal with three different Marxist rebel organizations and one paramilitary group, all of them more or less involved in drug trafficking.

More and more, Pastrana has been relying on the Catholic bishops as mediators in the process of dialogue he started recently.

On March 21, the Colombian president, traveling in Europe in search of support for his peace plan, was given an audience with Pope John Paul II. After the private meeting, Pastrana said he had formally requested the mediation of the Holy See, “of course, conditioned to the acceptance of the other side,” that is to say, the guerrilla groups.

In the meantime, he has requested Archbishop Antonio Giraldo Jaramillo, president of the Colombian bishops’ conference and head of the Commission of National Reconciliation, to play a mediating role.

“The role of the Catholic bishops in this process is decisive,” said Pastrana in March. “The country needs not only their prayers, but the credibility of one of the few institutions in which Colombians still trust.”

A conclusive comparison between the two presidents, their policies, and their relationship with the Catholic Church is still premature.

But in Latin America, where Catholics are the majority in countries with a history of anti-Catholic political activity, they show two opposite approaches to church-state issues.

Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru.