Perspective: The Church and the Venezuelan Crisis

We Are Millions March in Venezuela, 2015. (Image in the public domain)
We Are Millions March in Venezuela, 2015. (Image in the public domain)

by Patrick Stallwood

            

Over the last five years, the news cycle has bent an eye on Venezuela’s intensified political and humanitarian crisis. The country’s administration has blamed many of its problems on economic sanctions levied against it by the United States since Hugo Chavez’s revolution. The United States, on the other hand, has blamed the crisis on a severe mismanagement of funds by the Venezuelan government. As living conditions worsen for many citizens in this majority-Catholic nation, it becomes increasingly important to consider the duties of the Church in the midst of the crisis.

Under the leadership of Chavez, the country developed successful welfare programs, education, and healthcare for those in poverty, and was considered by many governments to be an economically successful nation. However, this prosperity occurred because oil prices were high, and Venezuela has the largest oil reserves of any country—making these programs and the entire economy dependent on oil prices. 

 

After the death of Chavez and the rise of his successor Nicolas Maduro in 2014, oil prices dropped precipitously. The subsidized welfare programs collapsed and mass food shortages and hyperinflation took hold. Many citizens blame Maduro, calling his presidency corrupt. He and his administration have reaped economic benefits and enjoyed food security ever since he ordered the military to take control of the food supply approximately two years ago. All the while, Maduro took steps to secure power by stocking the national assembly with loyalists and silencing political opponents. 

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On January 10, the political turmoil drastically increased after Maduro was reelected. His election has been condemned because he has ostensibly barred any political opponents from running against him. In response to the public outrage, National Assembly president Juan Guaidóhas declared that, due to the sham election, he has the right to assert himself as Venezuela’s true president. The United States, Canada, the majority of the European Union, and several Latin American countries currently recognize Juan Guaidóas Venezuela’s leader.  He has become increasingly popular with the Venezuelan people as millions continue to protest Maduro’s administration. 

 

In the midst of this political turmoil, the Catholic Church has not been idle. Bishops throughout Venezuela have condemned Maduro’s consolidation of power and stated that his leadership is illegitimate. On February 4, the Venezuelan bishops’conference, the Confederation of Religious Men and Women of Venezuela, and the National Council of the Laity issued a statement calling for free elections so that democracy could be restored to their country. 

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The bishops have expressed their belief that the current government has not represented the people and has worsened the humanitarian crisis. They urged the people to press on and continue protesting peacefully. Unfortunately, due to the scale and severity of the poverty and violence, it has become increasingly difficult for many people, including clerics, to offer adequate services to those in need. 

 

On February 4, Maduro appeared on live television asking for Pope Francis to act as a mediator for the crisis in Venezuela. On his returning flight from the United Arab Emirates, Pope Francis confirmed that the Vatican has received an official diplomatic dossier from Maduro, though he had not read it at the time of the press conference. Pope Francis added that he would be open to diplomacy if certain conditions were met first; mainly, that both sides ask for the intervention of the Holy See. As for Pope Francis’s position on the crisis, he has remained somewhat neutral, stating, “I support in this moment all of the Venezuelan people—it is a people that is suffering—including those who are one side and the other.”

 

This would not be the first time the Holy See has intervened in a Latin American conflict. In 1979, Chile and Argentina agreed to have the Vatican mediate a conflict after Argentina invaded Chilean islands and almost provoked war. St. Pope John Paul II acted as a mediator, and after five years of complex negotiations and the fallout of the Falklands War, the conflict dissolved without an official war between the two countries. Pope Francis acknowledged the success of Saint Pope John Paul II mediation; however, he clarified that many small diplomatic advances were made before the appeal for mediation. Venezuela is still deeply divided, and Pope Francis is still waiting for Guaidóto request his mediation before the Vatican would consider agreeing. 

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