The curious Vatican diplomacy in Venezuela

The curious Vatican diplomacy in Venezuela

Pope Francis has not mentioned Venezuela since an extraordinary meeting with the nation’s bishops on June 8. Is this silence a sign the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts have been counterproductive in solving the country’s current political crisis?

[“Curious” is an understatement]

Father Raymond J. de Souza
June 24, 2017

Venezuela, one of the most curious recent cases in Vatican diplomacy, continues to grow more curious still. The visit two weeks ago to Rome of the leading bishops of Venezuela may well have been unprecedented, a highly public visit aimed at, apparently, clarifying that the pope was on their side, and not that of Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro.

The address of Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Holy See’s representative at the United Nations, on Tuesday at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Mexico, reiterated the need for free elections in Venezuela, presumably so that the people can throw out Maduro’s regime, which is literally starving its people.

The Auza intervention ended a remarkable fortnight for the Holy See regarding Venezuela, one in which it appears that Pope Francis himself has decided not to speak any further on the situation. And it is possible that that is exactly what the Venezuelan bishops asked for – or the best that they could get.

On June 8, Francis received in an emergency audience the leadership of the Venezuelan episcopal conference, together with Venezuela’s two cardinals.

It clearly was not a Vatican initiative for them to come; the meeting did not appear on the pope’s weekly schedule, which had to be hastily reshuffled when the Venezuelans arrived in Rome. They decided on their own that it was necessary to come en masse to see the Holy Father to clear up confusion on the Vatican’s position in the Venezuelan crisis.

Cardinal Balthazar Porras of Merida had already been to see Francis at the end of April, but apparently that audience did not achieve what was intended. Hence the Venezuelan show of force in Rome.

It is hard to recall a similar meeting. It is not unusual when a crisis develops somewhere in the world for the Vatican to invite – or summon – the local bishops for consultations, or to express the Holy Father’s solidarity with the peoples afflicted.
But for the leading bishops of a country to rush off to Rome uninvited in order to get the Holy See on the same page as the local Church is something altogether different.

Venezuela’s bishops have been leading figures in the opposition to the Chavez-Maduro regime’s anti-democratic measures and human rights violations for a long time.
The recent economic crisis, where petro-socialism has collapsed along with the price of oil, has exacerbated the regime’s brutality, brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets, and ratcheted up the murderous violence Maduro has unleashed against the opposition, including the Church.

As I wrote earlier, the lack of clear condemnation by Pope Francis of the Maduro regime, at a time when the local bishops had been so courageous, was compromising the credibility of the Holy See’s diplomacy. It appeared that leftist Latin American autocrats were immune from the fierce language the Holy Father routinely uses for financiers or arms traders.

My colleague Austen Ivereigh replied that, in detecting a gap between a supposedly aloof Francis and a passionately engaged local Church, I had fallen into a trap set by Maduro himself. According to Ivereigh, Francis was following a master plan that just needed time to bear fruit.

The “trap” set by Maduro – to claim that the pope was taking his side, calling for dialogue, rather the Venezuelan bishops’ position of clear opposition – took in quite a few people.

For example, The Economist commented after the June 8 meeting:

The country’s bishops have consistently challenged abuses of human rights and democratic procedure by the regimes of the late Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro. But to many Venezuelans, the pope himself has been too willing to give Mr Maduro a free pass. Last October, for example, the Venezuelan strongman turned a meeting with Francis into a propaganda coup. To this day, Mr Maduro claims that by taking such a critical stance, the country’s bishops are out of step with their own pontiff. He blames the local prelates for the stalling of a political “dialogue” which he wants to conduct on his own self-interested terms.

Just what you might expect from a libertarian magazine of the right? How about a long profile on the situation in Venezuela from the liberal Catholic magazine, America:

Mother Church has grown to extend her protective wings over her people… The Venezuelan bishops, supported by the Holy See, themselves calling for the people to “not be intimidated,” but instead to “rebel against the dictatorship peacefully and democratically” because “never before have so many Venezuelans had to eat garbage” as the message that was read recently from pulpits across the land stated. I would be remiss if I did not also recognize that there have been missteps along the path of resistance. The Catholic Church is after all a political organization, just as it is a spiritual one. Pope Francis’ attempts to pull the church into stillborn dialogues with the narco-communists who govern Venezuela only shore up the regime’s legitimacy and hand another bitter disappointment to the nation’s citizen-warriors.

Above all, it seems that Venezuela’s own bishops have fallen into the “trap” Ivereigh described, sensing that Maduro’s attempt to enlist Francis in favour of his “dialogue” to rewrite the constitution was gaining some traction in world opinion.
Hence the visit to Rome. Before and after the meeting, the bishops laid out their case in interviews with Ines San Martin of Crux. They reported that they presented the Holy Father with a dossier of human rights abuses and killings by the Maduro regime. After the meeting, they insisted that there was no distance between their position and that of the pope, and that they had his “full trust.”

In support of which Francis has, for two weeks, said nothing. The Holy See Press Office made no statement on the content of the audience. In the pope’s Angelus and general audience appearances since, Venezuela has never been mentioned.
What happened at the meeting? There are three options.

First, that the bishops flew over urgently to commend how the pope was handling the situation and asked for more of the same, which is implausible on its face.

Second, that the bishops asked for a clear, unambiguous condemnation of the Maduro regime and support for their own demand for regime change through free elections. If they asked for that, they did not get it.

Third, the bishops could have asked the pope simply not to say anything more on the issue, leaving themselves to take the lead, claiming papal support. If they asked for that, they got it.

After the meeting on June 8, Archbishop Diego Padron, president of the Venezuela bishops, spoke of a letter sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, to the government and opposition last December.

Referring to the letter as the “Magna Carta” for resolving the crisis, Padron listed the four elements the letter insisted are necessary: A humanitarian corridor to allow foreign relief supplies to enter, re-establishing the full powers of the National Assembly, the release of political prisoners, and free elections.

What happened the next week illustrates the problem the bishops were attempting to overcome. Maduro wrote a public letter to Francis, again asking him to intervene against the Venezuelan bishops’ opposition. It is also hard to recall another occasion where a tyrant wrote to the pope to enlist his support against the local bishops.

Parolin, for his part, wrote a letter at the same time to six former Latin American presidents who are trying to resolve the Venezuelan crisis, restating the points of his “Magna Carta” letter. Auza took up the same points this week in Mexico.

As the crisis deepens and the brutalization of the Venezuelan people continues, the curious case of Vatican diplomacy continues. The pope goes silent. The secretary of state repeats what he said six months ago. And the Venezuelan bishops go home, having achieved something minimal, but important, from their emergency visit to Rome: Let the Vatican do no harm.

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2 comments on “The curious Vatican diplomacy in Venezuela

  1. Venezuela risks becoming Caribbean ‘North Korea,’ former leaders say

    By Junno Arocho Esteves
    Catholic News Service

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Two former Latin American presidents said the world is running out of time to find a solution to the crisis in Venezuela as President Nicolas Maduro aims to consolidate power over the country.

    Despite widespread protests, Maduro’s push to “put a group of his friends in what is called a ‘constituent assembly,’ would be the end of democracy and the annihilation of the Republic of Venezuela,” said Jorge Quiroga, former president of Bolivia.

    That election “will install a Soviet state in Venezuela, liquidate democracy, end the Congress, cancel elections and turn Venezuela into a sort of Caribbean ‘North Korea,'” he said.

    Joined by former Colombian President Andres Pastrana, Quiroga spoke to journalists at the Vatican June 23 on the deteriorating situation in Venezuela and attempts to diffuse the crisis following their meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

    Protests began after March 29, when the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the country’s parliament, in which the opposition had a two-thirds majority following the 2015 elections. The unprecedented ruling transferred legislative powers to the Supreme Court, which is comprised of judges nominated by Maduro.

    Quiroga said he was grateful for Cardinal Parolin’s call for humanitarian aid, free elections and the release of political prisoners. He also hoped the international community would “insist and persist” on the Vatican’s recommendations.

    “The Vatican has enormous moral and political weight and its position — in the name of Cardinal Parolin and the Holy Father — would be a determining factor to reel Venezuela back in toward the path of democracy,” he said.

    However, Quiroga added, Maduro’s push for a constituent assembly June 30, comprised mainly of his supporters and aimed at changing the country’s constitution, would “finish off Venezuela and destroy the country.”

    Both men also denounced former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero and Ernesto Samper, former Colombian president and current secretary general of the Union of South American Nations, for their indirect support for Maduro despite their roles as impartial negotiators between the government and the opposition.

    At a June 21 meeting on immigration in Cochabamba, Bolivian President Evo Morales — flanked by Zapatero, Samper and former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa — expressed his support for the Venezuelan government’s actions against protestors.
    “Dale duro, Maduro” (“Hit them harder, Maduro”), Morales said as he, Samper and others raised their fists in solidarity. Correa and Zapatero, however, did not raise their fists.

    “What meaning does this have when former presidents ask a dictatorship like the one in Venezuela to ‘hit them harder?’ Do they mean ‘keep killing, continue slaughtering youth who are raising their voices in Venezuela?'” Pastrana asked.

    The former Colombian president condemned the indirect support of two negotiators following the release of images showing government forces shooting and killing a 22-year-old protester, saying that their support decreases the likelihood of a peaceful solution.

    “I think dialogue has ended in Venezuela, that word has been stricken from the Venezuelan dictionary. There is no dialogue, there is no possibility for dialogue and less, when Zapatero, Samper and Correa are holding hands with Evo Morales and shouting, ‘Hit them harder, Maduro,'” he said.

    Quiroga added that he was “profoundly saddened” by Morales’ support for Maduro who continues “repressing and killing young people in the streets of Venezuela; continues detaining and judging civilians in military courts; continues to disband the Congress and muzzle the press.”

    He also accused Zapatero as acting as “a foreign operative of the Maduro government,” claiming the former Spanish prime minister tried to act on Maduro’s behalf to “scare” opposition members before the parliamentary election that saw them win a two-thirds majority.

    “We know his position and that he’s pretending to be a negotiator,” Quiroga said of Zapatero.

    Describing the current situation in Venezuela as a “surrealist dystopia,” Quiroga said that calls made by the Vatican supporting democracy must prevail. However, he said, time is running out.

    “The risk is that on June 30, Maduro has decided to deliver the final blow of his coup, calling it a vote for a constituent assembly, but in reality, is a final blow for Venezuelan democracy,” he said.

  2. Yeah, but … but Trump’s gonna build a wall and that’s just not Christian.

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