Hugo Chavez's Holy War
- From: "ljsprojects" <T.Schmidt.Teddy@xxxxxxxxx>
- Date: 18 Mar 2007 15:02:34 -0700
When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently took his oath of office
for a second term, he swore it in the name of Jesús Christ, who he
called "the greatest socialist of history." It's hardly an accident
that Chavez would hark on Christianity in addressing his people. For
years, Venezuela has been a religious battleground, with Chavez
pursuing a combative relationship with the Catholic Church.
In Venezuela, Catholics have a potent political voice and make up
about 70% of the country's population. Ever since taking office in
1999, Chavez has repeatedly clashed with the clergy. The President
frequently chastised Venezuelan bishops, accusing them of complicity
with corrupt administrations that preceded his rule.
To a certain extent, a clash was inevitable. Unlike some other Latin
American countries which were characterized by so-called liberation
theology, the Venezuelan Church has never had a leftist tendency.
According to observers, as few as one in 10 priests identify with the
left and out of more than 50 bishops only a handful are sympathetic to
The Venezuelan Church: A Bastion of Conservatism
Despite the conservative nature of the Church, relations between the
clergy and the Chavez government got off to a reasonably good start.
After he was first elected in 1998, Chavez proclaimed his devotion to
the Church and Catholic social doctrine. Venezuelan bishops in turn
supported the social programs that Chavez had outlined during his
presidential campaign. Bishops welcomed Chavez's calls to end
corruption, to foster a more equitable distribution of wealth,
transparent voting, and an end to the ruling class' special
Thing went awry, however, in July, 1999 when Chavez personally met
with Monsignor Baltazar Porras at the headquarters of the Episcopal
Conference. Porras, the Archbishop of the Andean city of Merida and
chairman of the Episcopal Conference, met with Chavez for two hours.
Emerging from the meeting, Porras declared that the Venezuelan
government had opted to cut its traditional subsidies to the Church by
up to 80%. The new rules, Porras said, would oblige clerical
authorities to adjust to "the new realities of the country, and to
figure out how to search for self financing." Porras became a vocal
critic of the regime; in Caracas he received the backing of the Papal
Nuncio, Monsignor André Dupuy.
Another point of friction was Chavez's calls for a new Constitution.
Church leaders feared that Chavez's secret agenda in calling for the
new constitution was the imposition of a Cuban-style communist
regime. Porras declared that Chavez was fomenting "fear and hate" and
dividing Venezuelans in his campaign to draft a constitution.
Traveling to Merida
Recently I was in Caracas to give a talk and decided to take a night
bus to Merida, a city located about seven hundred kilometers south-
west of the capital. I was eager to learn more about the Church in
Venezuela, and how its relations had deteriorated so dramatically with
I drifted off to sleep in the bus. Climbing up and down through the
mountains, the landscape was dotted with cacti. By the next day,
exhausted from the trip, I made my way to a posada or inn near the
Central Square. Five years earlier, I'd stayed in the same place
while pursuing research for my dissertation on the foreign oil
industry in Venezuela.
Merida is a favored tourist destination and feels like a Venezuelan
version of Switzerland with hotels, cyber cafes and vegetarian
restaurants appealing to foreigners. In the main square of the city,
Venezuelan hippies in their twenties play guitar and sell artisan
work. Despite its traditional religious outlook, Merida also has a
university which has had a long tradition of leftist politics.
A few days after recuperating from my long trip, I headed to the
Cathedral in Merida's central square. There, I spoke with Monsignor
Alfredo Torres, General Vicar of the local Archdiocese. A long time
fixture of the local church establishment, Torres went into the
seminary when he was fifteen years old.
When I asked Torres how relations had deteriorated so badly between
Chavez and Porras, the local clergyman explained, "The militarist,
socialistic bent of the government was always a critical point for the
Church-Military Relations Break Down
By 2000, the role of the military had certainly become a controversial
political issue. During his first year in power, Chavez, himself a
former paratrooper, faced a very unenviable political environment.
Congress and the Supreme Court were in the hands of the opposition, as
were the majority of mayoral districts and governorships. Meanwhile,
oil stood at only $7 a barrel.
In desperation, Chavez called on the armed forces to carry out
ambitious public works projects---the so-called Plan Bolivar 2000.
The plan proved reportedly divisive within the military, with some
soldiers feeling uncomfortable in their new social role.
The Church missed no opportunity to criticize Chavez's military
policy. Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco remarked publicly that
"something is making the armed forces nervous." Velasco recommended
that the armed forces should meet to decide whether soldiers should
have the right to express themselves openly.
Furthermore, Velasco remarked sarcastically, the Minister of Defense,
Ismael Hurtado Soucre, always tried to smooth over problems and make
believe that nothing was wrong within the military ranks. That
elicited a sarcastic rejoinder in turn from Hurtado, who remarked that
the Church certainly had its own share of problems.
Chavez vs. Castillo Lara
Chavez did not assuage the Church's fears when he declared famously
that several bishops and the Vatican's former representative in
Venezuela, Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, had allied with the
country's "rancid oligarchy."
"It would appear," said Chavez, "that a very small group of bishops
has something personal against the President."
Even more inflammatory still, Chavez suggested that priests such as
Castillo ought to subject themselves to an exorcism because "the devil
has snuck into their clerical robes."
In a personal riposte, Chavez sought to link Castillo with earlier
corrupt administrations. "Where were you when the bankers robbed more
than $7,000,000,000 under the government of Rafael Caldera, your
personal friend, during the financial crisis of 1994? Did you say
anything when the police massacred the people on the 27th of February
[during the Caracazo, massive urban riots in Caracas in 1989]?"
Incensed, Castillo compared Chavez to Italian dictator Benito
Meanwhile, the Church grew increasingly more concerned about the
Constitution, which failed to guarantee the protection of life
beginning at conception.
War of Words Escalates: Vargas Tragedy
In the midst of the escalating battle over the Constitution, disaster
struck when rains hit the state of Vargas, on the coast near Caracas.
I had the occasion to visit the area over this past summer, and what
one is immediately struck by is the precarious housing built on steep
hillsides. When the rains hit, they created massive landslides that
swept away everything. A catastrophe of epic proportions, the Vargas
rains led to the deaths of between 10 and 20,000 people.
In Vargas, I spoke with people who were still, seven years later,
waiting to be evacuated. Living in dilapidated housing and mired in
poverty, their plight was certainly depressing. Nevertheless, it
should be said that the government carried out a Herculean job,
evacuating 190,000 people. I visited one recently built housing
complex, Ciudad Miranda, which housed many of the refugees.
At a moment of crisis, the Church insinuated itself into the Vargas
crisis by making critical public statements. In a reference to
Chavez, Archbishop Velasco remarked that the Vargas tragedy was the
"wrath of God," because "the sin of pride is serious and nature itself
reminds us that we don't have all the power or abilities."
Chavez's Papal Gambit
As prominent Church figures such as Castillo and Velasco became more
combative, Chavez sought to override local opposition by traveling
personally to Rome where he met with Pope John Paul II. Venezuela has
attached much importance to its relationship to the Vatican and has an
Chavez took advantage of his Papal interview to confess. "It was
extraordinary for me, a practicing Catholic," Chavez remarked, "...to
have words with the Pope."
Chavez, who discussed controversial issues with the Pope such as
abortion, also sought to court the Pontiff by emphasizing common
concerns such as the "savage" neo-liberal economic order, "which had
brought people to misery, especially in the Third World."
A month after his trip to Rome, the Papal Nuncio in Caracas, Leonardo
Sandri, brought Chavez a verbal message from the Pope regarding the
constitutional process in Venezuela. According to Sandri, the Sacred
See expressed its concerns about guaranteeing life from its original
conception within Venezuela's new constitution. Later, Chavez met with
Archbishop Velasco, who also expressed his concerns about the right to
Church-State Relations Break Down in Merida
Back in Merida, I query Torres about the breakdown in relations.
"Here in the archdiocese," Torres remarked, "we got into a very
precarious financial situation. We receive money from the parishes,
cultural and academic activities and the well organized Archdiocese
museum. We get financing from private companies and banks, but the
government doesn't help."
Torres said that the government had withdrawn funding from the
archdiocese and seminary. He claimed, moreover, that the Church had
experienced some financial turmoil. The Church, he said, had media
enterprises in Merida including print, radio, and TV.
However, he declared that recently El Vigilante, a Church newspaper,
had been forced to close for economic reasons. Meanwhile, the TV and
radio station had very few financial resources to continue their work.
There were other disputes early on which set the course for future
conflict. For example, a quarrel over the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
Hospital Foundation, which had been managed by the Merida clergy since
the mid 1990s, turned nasty.
"The Church managed the local hospital," Torres explained. "The
government provided the money for the staff. The archbishop sought
equipment abroad. But, the government disregarded our contract after
Chavez assumed power."
In Merida: Porras vs. Chavez
According to the government, Porras was corrupt. The Merida State
Governor, Florencio Porras [a long time Chavista, retired Captain and
active participant in Chavez's aborted 1992 coup against then
President Carlos Andres Perez], declared that public funding as well
as private donations which were supposed to go towards the maintenance
of the hospital had disappeared and Baltazar Porras was responsible.
Baltazar Porras shot back that there was a "witch hunt" against him.
Chavez was personally apprised of the matter and the Attorney General
proceeded with an investigation into Porras' bank accounts.
Dramatically, the police as well as the Directorate of Intelligence
and Prevention Services, a special police and intelligence force
[known by its Spanish acronym Disip] moved into the hospital and
confiscated the facility's records. The action was coordinated by
federal authorities including the office of the national Comptroller
In a further move which antagonized the Church, state authorities
actually took over the management of the Hospital Foundation. Torres
bristles when discussing the incident. Porras, he says, was accused
of being a thief when in actuality it was the state which had behaved
crookedly. The authorities, he said, confiscated the hospital's
Even as the government moved to clamp down on the Church in Merida,
Chavez himself was heating up the rhetoric. The President accused
Porras of being an "adeco [members of the discredited and corrupt
political party Accion Democratica, which had ruled the country for
years prior to Chavez's election] with a cassock." Adding fuel to the
fire, Chavez remarked that the Church was "an accomplice in
Chavez's holy war threatened to spill over and destabilize relations
with the Vatican. In late 2000, John Paul II remarked that "a
democracy without values becomes authoritarianism." The Pope made his
remarks during an accreditation ceremony for the Venezuelan Ambassador
to the Vatican, Ignacio Quintana.
In Venezuela, politicians tried to make sense of the Pope's comments.
Jose Vicente Rangel, the Minister of External Relations, declared that
he agreed with John Paul's statement. "In that sense I am more Popish
than the Pope," Rangel said.
In speaking with the press, Quintana assured journalists that the Pope
"respected" the Bolivarian Revolution. The new ambassador claimed,
furthermore, that high authorities within the Vatican sympathized with
Chavez and the social changes taking place in Venezuela.
Lurking in the background however, Porras added his own spin to John
Paul's address. When the Pope said "a democracy without values,"
Porras said, the Pontiff was clearly referring to Venezuela.
While it's unclear what the Pope exactly meant, the Vatican sought to
appease conservatives by giving the nod to Ignacio Velasco. In early
2001 the Archbishop of Caracas was named a Cardinal by the Pope. As
such, he represented a dangerous potential enemy for Chavez.
In a gesture of congratulations for his new position, Quintana, the
Venezuelan Ambassador to the Vatican, gave the Caracas Archbishop a
pectoral cross made out of gold.
Chavez himself traveled back to the Vatican shortly after the 9-11
attacks to meet with the Pope. In an effort to smooth relations and
emphasize common ground, Chavez remarked, "The Pope has declared in
the last few days something that we have also said: that we do not
support war...The war is against hunger...The Pope has said that one
cannot respond to violence with more war. I also say the same, for
that reason I came to seek his guidance."
Lead up to coup
In late 2001, Chavez was confronting an angry opposition led by old
guard labor, business and oil executives at the state run oil company,
PdVSA. The Church seemed to be moving towards the opposition camp.
In January, 2002 Andre Dupuy, the Papal Nuncio, told Chavez that he
was worried about a possible "radicalization" of the internal conflict
Chavez in turn shot back that Dupuy was interfering in the country's
political affairs. In another address the same month, Chavez
characterized the Church as a "tumor" on society. A few days later,
perhaps recanting that he had gone too far, Chavez invited Venezuelan
bishops to participate in a dialogue, an offer the clergy rejected.
CTV, a large labor union, and Fedecamaras, the business federation.From there it was all downhill. The Church joined forces with the
The outspoken Porras declared that, "governments that are
democratically elected which do not comply with their promises become
The President of the Episcopal Conference added that anti-government
strikes and protests, which had intensified, were not part of a
conspiracy but the consequence of Chavez's own dogged behavior.
Chavez responded with more hyperbolic rhetoric of his own, suggesting
that archbishop Velasco "pray a little" and "look into his
conscience." Speaking during his radio and TV show, Alo, Presidente!,
Chavez criticized Velasco's interference in the political arena.
Chavez praised the Pope, while criticizing what he called "a small
group of clergy that doesn't amount to more than five people."
The Chavez/Porras Interview
It wasn't long, however, before the "small group" actively moved into
the camp of those seeking to overturn Chavez's government. During the
April 2002 coup, prominent Catholics such as Velasco sided with the
opposition against the president. Velasco, who had earlier met with
Chavez during the constitutional controversy, even offered his
residence as a meeting place for the coup plotters.
What is more, he signed the "Carmona decree" that swept away
Venezuela's democratic institutions. Senior Catholic bishops
themselves attended the inauguration ceremony for Pedro Carmona,
In an ironic twist, Chavez personally called Porras from the
presidential palace, Miraflores, and the Archbishop agreed to act as
the President's personal custodian and guarantor in the midst of the
coup. On April 12, Chavez was brought to Tiuna Fort, a military
facility in Caracas.
There, at 3:40 PM Chavez was received at the doors by Porras himself
as well as José Luis Azuaje, the Secretary General of the Episcopal
Conference. According to Porras, who was later interviewed by the
Spanish newspaper El Pais, the two spoke for hours in the midst of the
tense political situation.
"He [Chavez] was serene," Porras explained, "very serene, and spoke to
us in an intimate, confessional tone...We wanted to give him strength
and energy to examine the present and to be able to look towards the
Porras added, "Chavez asked me for forgiveness for the way he had
treated me." According to the Archbishop, Chavez moreover expressed
sorrow that he had not been able to achieve a more amicable
relationship with the Church.
Poisonous Relations Return
After his interview with Porras, Chavez was taken to the remote island
of Orchila. Cardinal Velasco later confirmed that he too went to
Orchila, where he spoke with the Venezuelan President. According to
Velasco, Chavez forgave himself and the two reportedly even prayed
Shortly thereafter Chavez was triumphantly restored to power. Later,
he clutched a crucifix when giving evidence to a televised
parliamentary commission investigating the deaths of 17 marchers who
participated in an anti-government demonstration and later coup
Meanwhile, the Episcopal Conference drafted a statement condemning the
"tragic occurrences" of April, 2002. Bishops stated, however, that
"in the current moment of uncertainty and tension it is necessary for
the government and society to open a space for real dialogue." Porras
added that the goodwill of the president should be demonstrated with
In an effort to appease the Church, Chavez later requested that the
Church help to mediate in the ongoing conflict with the political
opposition, which heated up later that year during an oil lock out.
Bizarrely, the opposition called on the Church to exorcise Chavez in
an effort to counter possession by demons.
Velasco, who apparently thought the request went too far, ruled out
the possibility but was still critical of the government. In the
midst of the escalating war of words, John Paul II called for peace
Whatever goodwill had existed following the coup quickly dissipated.
Chavez later stated that "there are bishops from the Catholic Church
who knew a coup was on the way, and they used church installations to
bring coup plotters together ... those clerics are immoral and
spokesmen for the opposition."
Meanwhile, a government commission recommended that the Attorney
General's office open an investigation into Cardinal Velasco and
Baltazar Porras for presumed participation in the April coup. Velasco
claimed to have received death threats. When the Cardinal died about
a year after the coup, removing one of the key opposition figures in
the Church, riot police had to disperse crowds with rubber bullets at
As the funeral procession proceeded, Chavez supporters shouted insults
such as "Justice has been done---he was a coup plotter!", and "The
rats bury their rat!" Reportedly, pro-government demonstrators also
stormed the cathedral where Velasco lay in state.
Merida: an Embattled City
During the tumultuous days after the coup, Porras found himself
besieged even within his home town of Merida. A manifesto soon
appeared in the city, published by the "Revolutionary Justice, Truth
and Dignity Movement."
In the pamphlet, the group declared that Porras was persona non grata,
a traitor and a political fanatic. The manifesto claimed that Porras
was "a destructive, disruptive, agitating, subversive element" for
society. The group also attacked Velasco, who was referred to as
In late 2002, Porras was verbally insulted by Chavez followers in the
Merida State Legislature. Porras had been invited to speak on the
hundredth anniversary of the birth of Merida Cardinal Jose Humberto
Quintero. Chavez officials from the State Legislature held banners
and interrupted the proceedings by shouting.
I have always been struck by the religious tone in the city of
Merida. When I was first there as a graduate student, in 2001, I
observed many shops selling religious artifacts and candles. Over
this past summer, when I returned, I saw the main church full of
people during Sunday mass. Speaking with local residents in Merida, I
learned that the city had been touched by political change.
The woman who managed the posada where I was staying remarked that
social programs initiated after the coup had made a modest difference
in the lives of meridenos. Her children, for example, were now
attending some of the new Bolivarian schools (she complained, however,
that parents had to shell out money of their own to maintain the
Poor people, she said, were now receiving food at the local government
sponsored soup kitchens. Near to the posada on a side street, I saw a
cooperatively run restaurant sponsored by the government's vuelvan
caras or "turning lives around" program.
To get more information about changes in Merida society, I headed to a
government building on the main square, near the Cathedral. Peering
around inside, I noticed that the offices were plastered with posters
of Chavez, Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar.
Upstairs, I spoke with Ruben Aguila Cerati, Director of Electoral
Politics for Chavez's MVR party in the State of Merida, and a former
member of the Venezuelan Communist Party. Cerati, a colorful, jolly
man who had been a guerrilla fighter himself, explained to me that
gender relations had changed dramatically.
"Today we have 153,000 meridenos registered in the MVR [Chavez's
political party]. Fifty three percent of these people are women. In
the political assemblies, women are the dominant force. I can't say
there is no machismo here in Merida, but women have been liberated."
Merida Church and Social Reforms
Not everyone has embraced the social changes in the city, however.
Back in the main cathedral, Torres spoke of chronic poverty in
Merida's barrios, remarking that "change for the better has not
reached the people, who continue to search for a means of survival."
Torres, echoing the criticisms of the opposition, also touched on the
issue of insecurity. "There's been an increase in criminal activity,"
he said. "Merida used to be a very safe area."
"That's the government's fault?" I asked.
"The government hasn't acted to adopt the necessary measures to stop
crime," he replied. "People are afraid to go out at night. You didn't
notice this before, there wasn't so much violence."
I asked Torres about the controversial role of Cuban doctors who had
come to Venezuela to provide medical assistance for poor residents.
"We think that...this assistance has not resolved the health problem
amongst the people," Torres answered. He criticized conditions in a
local hospital, remarking that "the service is horrible; people need
to buy sheets, medicine and other necessities."
"Would you prefer that the Cuban doctors leave the country?" I asked.
"The doctors have helped," Torres conceded. "However, the overall
health situation hasn't changed."
I turned the discussion towards education, a historically contentious
issue between the Church and Chavez authorities. Torres admitted that
the Bolivarian schools had set up new cafeterias, a positive
development. In an echo of what the Senora had said in the posada,
however, he criticized the government for not providing necessary
assistance to local schools.
"A sign of this phenomenon," Torres exclaimed, "is that if you want a
place in a Catholic school they are all filled up. Everyone wants to
get a spot."
Government and Church Spar Over Land
Another controversial measure pushed by Chavez has been land reform.
I had wanted to tour the countryside but unfortunately fell sick with
an acute case of bronchitis and had to curtail my trip. I did,
however, query Torres about the issue.
The clergyman voiced serious reservations. In the wake of the land
reform, he said, the campesinos had become radicalized and this had
led to a serious confrontation "and an invasion of farms which brings
problems and puts a break on development."
I wanted to get Torres' views on land reform as well. Before
conducting my interview with the local priest, I had read an article
in La Frontera, a local opposition paper, arguing that local cattle
ranchers had been obliged to hire hit men to defend themselves,
ostensibly against kidnapping.
The Minister of Interior accused the ranchers of inflating the
kidnapping figures in an effort to justify the hiring of hit men, who
had in turn killed campesinos [the secretary of the campesino
federation has said that his colleagues have been killed by the hit
men "as a result of the campesino struggle for land"].
Torres conceded that violence had escalated in the countryside.
However, he said the government was responsible for encouraging an
overall climate of delinquent behavior which did not help the
"I think all of this government rhetoric starts to generate violence,"
Across the square I spoke with Cerati about the rural situation. He
began first by extolling Chavez's various "mission" programs which had
transformed the countryside.
"The campesinos now know how to read and write," he exclaimed
enthusiastically. "Here there is no longer any illiteracy: that is
The discussion then turned to health matters, and I queried Cerati
about the Cuban doctors. "Campesinos," he noted, "who had never seen
a doctor now have them right at their side. The Cuban doctors have
incorporated themselves into the peasantry. The campesinos are not
suspicious of communism."
Unlike Torres, who blamed the government for rural violence, Cerati
pointed the finger at powerful interests. "Campesinos," he said,
"have been killed and assassinated by these landlords. This has
happened in the south of Lake Maracaibo, in Barinas, and in Yaracuy.
The land belongs to the campesinos, the revolutionaries."
"Merida has traditionally been very conservative and dominated by the
Church," I remarked. "How do you see the situation in the
countryside, is it the Church supporting the landlords, and the
government supporting the campesinos?"
"The clergy has always been right wing," Cerati answered. "It's
always represented the oligarchies, the bourgeoisie. But, now the
majority of the lower tier clergy are with the Bolivarian process.
There's an incredible difference between the clergy here in the city
of Merida and the priests out in the countryside."
Castillo Lara Turns Up the Pressure
Porras meanwhile backed efforts to recall Chavez as president. In
2003 he remarked that Chavez had abused his power and his regime was a
profound "social failure." Chavez shot back that Porras had become a
spokesperson for the opposition and should take off his cassock
because he was not a dignified man of Christ. "God is with the
Bolivarian Revolution," Chavez said, "and here there are people with
cassocks who oppose the political changes that we are carrying out."
In his own retort, Porras responded that in Venezuela peace and
goodwill had deteriorated, while poverty, unemployment, corruption,
violence, homicides and kidnapping had increased.
Porras warned about the rise of cults inspired by 20th century fascist
leaders, and went so far as to equate Chavismo with Franco, Nazism,
and fascism. Porras' frontal offensive was echoed by other Church
leaders such as Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, who called for civil
disobedience against the Chavez government.
With Velasco now gone, high Church officials looked isolated within
the new political environment, characterized by a fractured opposition
and ascendant Chavez. Porras, though, denied any significant political
division within Church ranks. The archbishop met personally with John
Paul II, who was reportedly very worried about political conflict in
Venezuela and sought a peaceful solution to the polarization.
Pope Benedict: A New Direction?
After John Paul II died in April, 2005 Chavez again went to Rome, this
time to meet with the new Pope Benedict XVI. According to Father
Pedro Freites, who heads the Venezuelan School in Rome and had
formerly been the head of Vatican radio for Latin America and the
Caribbean, Castillo Lara did not represent the Church when he called
for civil disobedience in Venezuela.
However, in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional he
remarked that Benedict was "aware of the situation in Venezuela and of
the serious danger posed to democracy." Castillo Lara, he added, had
ties with all cardinals and had been the governor of the Vatican
State. He had submitted reports, and the Pope was concerned that a
dictatorship might be imposed in Venezuela. Ratzinger himself,
Freites remarked, was close to Castillo Lara and had also spoken with
During his meeting with the Venezuelan leader, Benedict handed Chavez
a letter outlining the Church's concerns. In the note, the Pope
raised fears that religious education was being squeezed out of some
Venezuelan schools. He also touched upon Venezuela's public health
programs, expressing concern that the right to life be maintained
"from its inception."
Chavez reportedly sought to overcome his government's differences with
the Church. At the end of their meeting, Chavez presented the Pope
with a portrait of Simon Bolivar, the mythical Venezuelan independence
leader who Chavez idolizes. The picture bore an inscription from
Bolivar's will, saying that he remained, at long last, a Catholic.
Following the meeting, Chavez declared that the crisis between his
government and the Church had its "limits in time, space, and
personalities." The conflict that had existed, Chavez continued, had
to do with a very small group of people. Moreover, he was committed
to "turn the page" and start over, owing to his "sense of
responsibility" towards Venezuela and the doctrine of Christ.
Church Hardliners Isolated
Indeed, Chavez had just reason to feel relieved. Already, the Church
had seemed to adopt a more conciliatory stance when it replaced the
hard line French conservative Papal nuncio, Monsignor André Dupuy,
with the Italian Giacinto Berlocco. Reportedly, the new nuncio was
instructed to seek a less confrontational policy towards Chavez.
When Castillo Lara said that Venezuelans should "deny recognition" to
the Chavez government, Berlocco stated that the Venezuelan Cardinal
did not reflect the position of the Catholic Church in Venezuela.
Chavez praised Berlocco for carrying out what he called "quiet and
What's more, after his visit with the new Pope Chavez also expressed
pleasure with other new Church appointments such as Cardinal Jorge
Urosa Savino, who in his first address called on the Church to work
for unity and understanding in Venezuela, and Ubaldo Santana, the new
president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference.
In the political reshuffle, conservatives had been sidelined. In the
race to pick a new cardinal for Venezuela, Savino, the bishop of
Maracaibo, had edged out his more outspoken competitor, Porras.
According to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, some bishops
opposed Porras for taking such a radical anti-Chavez stance which had
imperiled relations with the government.
In early 2006, Castillo Lara once more attacked Chavez but his
influence seemed to be much reduced. Speaking in the west of the
country before thousands of worshippers participating in a pilgrimage
to the Virgin Mary, the Cardinal said the country was undoubtedly
becoming a dictatorship. When Chavez claimed there was a conspiracy
in Rome to damage his government, Archbishop Urosa quickly grew
concerned and condemned Castillo Lara's remarks.
Moving To the Future
On my recent trip, I traveled with a peace delegation to Charallave, a
town outside of Caracas. Sitting in a Mennonite church, we spoke with
Jorge Martin, president of a local group of pastors.
"Chavez," he told us, "has said that Church work should complement
government efforts. We recognize that the church needs to do social
work and that the church has a role in this area."
Indeed, even as Chavez has sparred with the Church, Protestants have
become a key pillar of the president's political support. Back in
Caracas, in fact, our delegation had observed a Protestant church
which prepared government provided food for the poor. Martin called
Pat Robertson's calls to assassinate Chavez "unfortunate." He said
that in Venezuela, Protestants of all denominations had rejected the
Over the last few years, Chavez has done his utmost to cultivate the
support of Protestants, which make up 29% of the population. He even
declared that he was no longer a Catholic but a member of the
Christian Evangelical Council.
In his speeches, Chavez hardly flees from religious themes and
frequently quotes from the Bible. Bizarrely, he also tells his
supporters in speeches that Christ was an anti-imperialist.
Chavez's rhetoric, not surprisingly, has alarmed the Catholic clergy.
Freites believes that Chavez's long-term goal is to "create a parallel
Church...that identifies with the revolutionary process."
While such views may be exaggerated, it is impossible to overlook
religious overtones in everyday Venezuelan politics. During my visit
to a government housing project in Ciudad Miranda outside Caracas, I
spotted banners on the street reading, "With Chavez, Christian
P.S. Sorry it is so long. No comments.
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