The depths of the Venezuela crisis became clear yesterday as the nation’s Catholic bishops denounced the “brutality” and “criminalization of protests” by the leftist regime led by Nicolás Maduro. Their bold and unequivocal rejection of the regime’s “totalitarian” tendencies underscores the perilous isolation of Maduro’s Cuban-backed government.
In an appropriately timed April 1st opinion piece in the New York Times, Maduro issued a call for dialogue—just as his government ousted popular opposition leader Maria Corina Machado from her seat in the Venezuelan National Assembly and prepared to prosecute her for leading peaceful protests. The bulk of Maduro’s New York Times piece was aimed at silencing critics outside Venezuela, but the bishops’ remarkably blunt declaration demonstrates that he is losing legitimacy back home.
Since the late Venezuelan strong man Hugo Chávez took power in 1998, the country’s powerful Catholic Church, which represents the vast majority of the nation, shied away from openly confronting his “Bolivarian revolution.” Rather than confront Chávez’s political machinations, religious leaders focused their efforts on trying to establish common ground in a dangerously polarized society.
On Wednesday, the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, the council of the nation’s bishops that speaks for the Catholic Church, condemned the Maduro government’s implementation of an “authoritarian” agenda and questioned its “democratic profile.” In a communiqué, the bishops declared that the government “applies brutal repression on political dissidents” and seeks to attain peace by using “threats, physical or verbal violence, and repression.”
Church leaders also rejected the abusive judicial repression and persecution of opposition politicians. And, they criticized the lack of adequate public policies to address impunity, insecurity, and “attacks on domestic production,” which has led to a serious deterioration of economic conditions.
It is unlikely that Venezuela’s bishops would speak so categorically on the sociopolitical crisis in their country without the blessing of Pope Francis and the Vatican hierarchy. Although the Vatican signaled last week its willingness to act as a mediator, yesterday’s press release shows that the doors for dialogue with the government are closing and that even nonpolitical actors in the country have begun to challenge the legitimacy of the Maduro regime.
Unlike Chávez, Maduro does not have the fervent support of the very poor or the loyalty of the military. As the Catholic Church joins in the chorus of critics, Maduro is finding that he cannot beat the country into submission. Together with an increasing death toll (nearly 40 dead), rampant government-sanctioned violence and torture, severe food shortages, unrest spreading to poorer neighbors, and the impending bankruptcy of the Venezuelan state, Maduro must now add the scorn of his country’s spiritual leadership to his long rosary of sorrows and sins.
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