In Venezuela... It’s Chavez vs. The Church

BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela — The congregation in the cathedral of Barquisimeto, in the western Venezuelan state of Lara, didn’t know what was coming. Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara used his homily to weigh in on a cold war that has been raging between the Church and the government of Venezuela.

He was presiding over the Jan. 14 feast of the Divine Shepherdess, a popular Marian devotion that draws 2 million Venezuelans to the city each year. For the most part, his homily focused on the spiritual meaning of the feast. But the 83-year-old Cardinal Castillo, a retired Vatican official and one of President Hugo Chavez’ harshest critics, also struck a political note.

“On this solemn occasion I ask that we all fervently pray together to the Divine Shepherdess to save Venezuela,” Cardinal Castillo said. “A government democratically elected seven years ago has lost its democratic way and shows signs of dictatorship, where all powers are in the hands of one person who exercises them in an arbitrary and despotic way,”

While some military officials stood up and left, other people started applauding.

Chavez soon reacted to news of the homily. He called Cardinal Castillo “an embarrassment for the Catholic Church” and “an ally to the radical opposition who wants to set the country in flames.”

He demanded that the new leadership of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference distance itself from the cardinal.

Archbishop Jorge Urosa Savino of Caracas, second vice president of the bishops’ conference, said the cardinal’s opinions were “untimely and inadequate,” and said they did not represent the position of the Venezuelan bishops.

Archbishop Ubaldo Santana, the president of the bishops’ conference, is known as a conciliatory man. He said the cardinal’s opinions were “his own,” but remarking that “he is entitled to such opinion, just as any other Venezuelan.”

Despite initial dissatisfaction, Chavez issued a statement indicating he was pleased. Listing several top members of the Venezuelan hierarchy — Archbishops Santana and Urosa, as well as Papal Nuncio Archbishop Giacinto Berloco, he said he was happy they “have distanced themselves from the declaration and embarrassment caused by that retired cardinal.”

The tension was partly defused after Chavez and the leadership of the bishops’ conference met Jan. 25. Emerging from the hour-long, closed door session with serious expressions, the bishops read a statement: “The Church in Venezuela is determined to keep working in full freedom, convinced that, by performing our ministry, we are strengthening both the Church and the Venezuelan people.”

Divided Country

The statement read by Archbishop Santana also said that they had requested the president to avoid insults “against some bishops, since an effective and valid dialogue is only possible if lack of trust is put aside.”

They also said they explained to Chavez that “our documents have been approved unanimously, and they express our identity and deserve being read entirely and seriously.”

After reading the statement, Archbishop Santana said he was “hopeful” about the future of the relationship with the government “since we found a very attentive president.”

“I think the door is open for future encounters,” he said.

Though tensions have decreased, the country is deeply divided over Chavez. Supporters applaud the president’s social programs for the poor, while opponents fear he is leading the country toward Cuban-style communism.

American televangelist Pat Robertson last August said Chavez could transmit communism and Islamic extremism to the region. He apologized for a remark he said was misinterpreted as suggesting it would be better if Chavez were assassinated. Chavez has repeatedly denied that he represents a threat to democratic freedoms gained after the 1958 ousting of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez, Venezuela’s last dictator.

Nevertheless, the political landscape doesn’t look reassuring. The five main opposition parties boycotted the election of Dec. 3, accusing the electoral body of bias. Only 25% of registered voters cast a ballot.

As a consequence, all 167 seats in Venezuela’s national assembly are taken by politicians who are loyal to Chavez, marking the first time in almost 50 years that the body has had no opposition members.

Critics say the new assembly, being similar to the one in Cuba, is unlikely to provide any counterbalance to the president, and is likely to vote in favor of changing the constitution to allow Chavez to run in presidential elections as many times as he wishes.

But Chavez supporters in the chamber say they are ready to carry out a “lively debate” and to discuss legalization “related to issues such as homosexual ‘marriages’ and a flexible abortion law,” according to an unnamed congressman quoted by the daily El Universal. That’s something that has raised even greater concern among the bishops.

According to Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the independent newspaper Tal Cual, the vote has “buried the country’s electoral system.”

“The government has a problem it cannot ignore — a single-colored parliament elected amid a gigantic abstention,” he said.

“Things have changed in Venezuela, but not for the better,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told a news conference in Washington Jan. 25. “There’s been a continued consolidation of power on the part of Chavez.”

In its report, Human Rights Watch said Chavez and lawmakers had passed laws allowing them to pack the Supreme Court with allies and introduced legislation on broadcast media that could curtail press freedoms.

Harsh Words

The Catholic bishops were initially very sympathetic to Chavez’s  first steps against corruption and in favor of social reform. These came as he took office seven years ago. But the president’s authoritarian tendencies increasingly soured the relationship.

Chavez compared himself to Christ and labeled the Catholic Church “a tumor” that opposes his efforts for deep social reform.

In response, bishops and clerics have been more and more critical of the authoritarian turn of his “Bolivarian revolution” (named for independence hero Simon Bolivar), especially because — in the words of Bishop Roberto Lückert León of Coro, first vice president of the bishops conference, “he is investing in foreign revolutions, while our country is crumbling.”

Nicolas Maduro, speaker of the new Venezuelan Parliament, told the Register he is convinced that “the Catholic hierarchy is associated with an opposition plan masterminded to spark confrontation with the state.”

“I don’t mean all the bishops are involved, but there are some key figures within the conference who are maneuvering to bring the government down,” he said.

Cardinal Castillo shot back: “They are the ones conspiring against the Church and they are the ones boycotting the development and the progress of Venezuela. And their claim that the Catholic bishops have some kind of hidden agenda against the government or is in alliance with any other political force is just further proof that thieves think everyone else is of the same kind.”

A source at the bishops’ conference who requested anonymity said that the Holy See has instructed Archbishop Urosa to cool down tensions with the government, and so far, he has been delivering.

Also, even if Archbishop Santana has criticized some government policies in the past, he also has offered to work with the Chavez administration to fight poverty and political intolerance.

“We are ready to work together like brothers,” he said after being elected president of the bishops conference. “It doesn’t matter if we criticize each other. ... We don’t want to fight with anybody, but we are not running away from our responsibilities as pastors either.”

Alejandro Bermúdez

is based in Lima, Peru.