Is there a properly Judeo-Christian perspective on the current crisis in Venezuela? It depends on whom you ask. In a word, it’s complicated, even among those of the same faith community.
After several unsuccessful coup attempts, Hugo Chavez finally attained power electorally at the end of the last century. He promised a Bolivarian Revolution that claimed, at its core, a desire to capture and redistribute the wealth of the state from its powerbrokers toward the traditionally disadvantaged. His message of economic and political transformation brought hope to those who had not had much previously, and fear to Venezuela’s elites.
Indeed, Chavez knew his audience. Venezuela’s fundamental problem was that, despite having the world’s largest oil reserves and ranking as Latin America’s wealthiest nation, it nonetheless suffered from massive poverty and gross income and wealth inequality. Even as the Concorde flew directly between Caracas and Paris, the economic prospects for many if not a majority of Venezuela’s citizens were bleak. Chavez vowed to redress this situation and, viewed through an economic justice lens, his goals seemed at least nominally compatible with the Gospel message of addressing poverty and promoting human dignity. Echoes of twentieth-century liberation theology began to reverberate.
On his death, Chavez’ hand-selected successor, Nicolás Maduro, vowed to intensify the Bolivarian Revolution, and he has been true to his word. The path laid down by Chavez predictably led to economic chaos, authoritarianism, and human rights abuses when taken to its logical end. Unimaginable levels of corruption are common, including among the military and security forces allowed to engage in drug trafficking as a means for the regime to keep their leaders loyal. The private sector has been strangled, investment has ground to a halt, inflation is hyper, illegality has flourished, and millions of regular Venezuelans continue to flee as a result of food and medical shortages and out-of-control crime. Astoundingly, despite claims to the contrary, poverty today is actually higher than when Hugo Chavez first came into office.
Even as circumstances markedly deteriorated over time and Maduro’s security forces, including motorcycle-mounted goon squads, brutally repressed sporadic street protests, outside observers saw little chance of catalyzing a peaceful restoration of democracy other than through popular protests and dialogue between the Maduro regime and the opposition, a scenario that Maduro has repeatedly and cynically used to buy time, further consolidate his rule, and work to divide the opposition.
That is, until January 10, 2019, with the expiration of Maduro’s term. The Chavez-instituted constitution requires that the leader of the National Assembly become the “interim president” of the nation if the presidency is unfilled. Because Maduro’s 2018 “reelection” was deemed illegitimate due to overwhelming fraud, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó has now been recognized by much of Latin America, Europe, and North America as the legitimate, temporary leader of Venezuela. One of his first acts has been to call on the security forces to allow humanitarian assistance into the country to get food and medicines to long-suffering Venezuelan citizens. An uneasy stalemate has now settled on the nation.
What is the faith community to do?
Venezuela is a nominally Catholic nation, and the Catholic Church has traditionally played an outsized role in the nation’s politics. The installation of Argentine Pope Francis in 2013 coincided almost exactly with the election process that initially brought Maduro to power. The pope’s easy familiarity with Latin America and its politics encouraged him to promote a vision for the Americas that a number of the region’s populist leaders at the time found both convenient and supportive.
The pope interjected himself into Venezuelan politics, seeking to bring about a peaceful resolution of the crisis at several points through his good offices. But the opposition has not fully trusted him as an objective voice given perceptions that he harbors sympathies for leftist movements in Latin America including Chavismo. Indeed, Church leaders within Venezuela itself have long painted a far different picture of the Maduro regime than Rome. The Vatican has described its official position as “positive neutrality,” which presents somewhat of a problem: how can neutrality be justified in the face of oppression? Of course, most if not all people of faith would support genuine poverty alleviation and assistance to the least of these. But Chavismo was never really about that, and it has now predictably proven both economically and morally bankrupt. With this undeniable reality, reports have now surfaced that the Vatican may be rethinking its approach.
Other faith leaders have faced similar dilemmas. The president of Venezuela’s Evangelical Council has focused on prayer for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The small Jewish community has been wary of the regime’s courting of Iran and Hezbollah but prefers to remain under the political radar so as not to attract negative attention or reprisals. For its part, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has weighed in with a call for peace while throwing in for good measure an implicit condemnation of the United States for “threatening intervention.”
The irony is that those who live in Venezuela now are increasingly desperate to cast off the yoke of Maduro’s oppressive regime, whereas church leaders from afar, in Rome and the United States, are approaching the situation through a different lens. Yet the humanitarian crisis is expanding. Ten percent of the entire population has now left the country, with more are crossing borders every day. The ultimate answer must be to replace the Maduro regime with a democratically elected leader according to Venezuela’s constitution, which is exactly what the Guaidó interim government, with the support of much of the international community, is attempting do. Meanwhile, in the immediate term the faith community can be working to alleviate the suffering and meet the needs of Venezuelan refugees outside the country, and working with the remaining afflicted population inside the country.
Whatever well-meaning initial impressions may have existed about Chavez and Maduro, the record is now abundantly clear that virtually the only poverty these leaders alleviated was their own and supporters of their regime, while looting the national patrimony and impoverishing their subjects. The faith community must therefore get over any lingering sympathy for Chavismo. It is not an instrument of justice, biblical or otherwise, and Venezuela’s problems do not stem from “US intervention.” Knowing this truth—and acting upon it—is critical for setting the long-suffering Venezuelan people truly free.
Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society.
Photo Credit: Acting President of Venezuela Juan Guaidó in Caracas at a protest march against Nicolás Maduro on February 2, 2019. By Alexcocopro, via Wikimedia Commons.